Voice-Mail System Improves Attendance, Broadens Communication in District

A full-featured voice mail system able to run on low-end computers recently underwent extensive testing in Maryland's Prince George's County school system. With a population of over 750,000, the county borders Washington, D.C., and its schools must deal with the challenges facing urban and suburban schools everywhere. Several district high schools have been using SyncMail to determine its effectiveness in the areas of improving attendance and parent-teacher communications. The System, in Brief SyncMail, developed by Sync Data of Hyattsville, Md., is capable of running in any DOS environment, including that of "obsolete" IBM-XT-compatible systems (pre-286 machines), while still retaining all its capabilities. The system, which can be accessed from any touch-tone telephone, provides an unlimited number of voice-mailboxes for teachers and administrators, plus will automatically call students' homes to report absences or give general announcements. SyncMail may also function as a substitute-teacher finder. One selling point, especially for schools seeking an entry-level approach, is that the basic SyncMail system can handle two phone lines. With additional hardware, it accepts up to 14 lines. For Homework and More Surrattsville High School in Clinton, Md., is a technology testing school for the county. Surrattsville has about 250 computers for its student population of 987 and has computerized all of the library catalog and administrative activities. Vicki Williams, computer coordinator for the school, has had SyncMail running for 18 months. "We use it as a 'homework hotline,' and also to call attendance," says Williams. "This is my 25th year here, and I know that parent involvement has been dropping. So many more parents are working now, and any way we can talk to them is important." Williams says that some teachers in her school have been using the system in creative ways, with encouraging student reaction. Mr. Anderson, a French teacher, is a very enthusiastic user. Over the Christmas holidays, he left extra-credit questions and assignments on SyncMail, changing the message every day from his home. "We logged over 100 calls to his mailbox over that time period," she says. Lines of Communication Margaret Harris, also a computer coordinator at Surrattsville, says there have been unanticipated uses of the system. "We thought we would shut it down for the summer, that there wouldn't be any activity. But we had given a mailbox to the Parent Advisory Committee [similar to a P.T.S.A.] and the parents insisted that we keep it on because they were using it to communicate with each other." Harris also tells of interesting aspects for students. "It collects disenfranchised kids," she notes, "students who, under different circumstances, might be teacher's pets. They call and leave messages like, 'This is David; I just wanted to say I hope you have a good evening,' things like that. Our ninth graders, especially, feel kind of lost and it's a way for them to say things that they might not say in class for fear of ridicule." Anything to help teachers and students connect is a plus. "With the overcrowding and discipline problems in the classroom today," she adds, "we don't have that contact time with the students that we used to, and it seems that being able to interact with the SyncMail system makes them feel closer." Finding "Lost" Students SyncMail's reporting features have generated unanticipated advantages as well. When calling out to students' homes to inform parents of absences, the system detects answering machines, operator intercepts (disconnected numbers), busy signals and hang-ups. Reports show all these events. "So far, SyncMail has allowed us to find two families who were sending children to our school who did not live in our area," says Williams. "I can also look at a report and see how many times a number was dialed before being answered. If I see that SyncMail dialed the number several times between 6:00 pm and 9:00 pm (the normal time calls are made to homes of absent students), and there was no answer, I might have a bit more insight into why that child is not doing well in school." Pete Fischer, Williams' counterpart at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, agrees that the system is very useful for keeping track of students' current residences and family situations. He explains that his school has an ethnically diverse student population. Since SyncMail can be configured for bi-lingual operation, it can track students' whereabouts even if the family d'esn't speak English. "If disconnected numbers show up on the call-out report," he says, "often the family has moved and we were not notified." Real Needs of Regular People Functionality and ease of use are paramount in SyncMail's design, according to the company. They concentrated on delivering the features that schools really need, instead of providing functions that have proven too cumbersome for schools to actually utilize. Fischer concurs that SyncMail is easy to use. "I have never seen anything this simple. Many previously demanding functions now take seconds. System administration is negligible and working it requires virtually no training." Teachers who post homework on the system have found extra leverage during parent-teacher conferences. As one English teacher explained to Williams: when she g'es into a parent conference, if the parent asks, "Why aren't you assigning homework?" she can say, "Have you been calling the voice mail? I leave a message; I leave your child's homework assignments." Then, noted the teacher, "the burden g'es back to parents, where it should be, instead of on us." Halving the Absentee Rate In the same district, Friendly High School in Ft. Washington is using SyncMail to deal with an absentee rate that was running over 10%. The 1,400-student school has had the system online for just five months, but vice principal Alvin Marbray has already noticed a dramatic improvement. "We have had a nearly 5% decrease in our average daily absentee rate over last year," he says. "I attribute most of that to our using SyncMail to call the homes of absent students and I expect it to improve even more. The reaction of the parents has been very positive. Many of them are calling to express appreciation."

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1994 issue of THE Journal.