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We've Got Mail

E-mail makes school communications safe and easy.

Like the business world, schools such as Red Clay (Del.) School District count on e-mail to communicate. "It's instantaneous. It's the best way to go," says Judith Conway, instructional technology coach in the district.

Also in Delaware, anyone anyplace can sign up to receive CSD E-News, the Christina School District's e-mail newsletter. With tight budgets, e-mail is a cost-effective way to deliver news because there are no postage or hard-copy production costs, reports Wendy Lapham, the district's public information officer.

When three students in the Oswego (Ill.) Community Unit School District and their mother were found murdered in June about 20 miles from their home, Superintendent David L. Behlow activated an emergency instant alert system that includes e-mail to immediately notify the district's nearly 2,000 staff members.

And in Saginaw (Mich.) Public Schools, where about a half-million e-mail messages come in every day, administrators use a firewall provided by Barracuda Networks, a security protection service, to block pornography, spam and other inappropriate messages. About 5,000 of the e-mails, or 1 percent, which are authentic are cleared to go through, keeping students productive and safe from pornography and other inappropriate sites, says Kyle Warner, the district's manager of network services.

In ways like these, for communication internally and externally on administrative and academic matters alike, school districts across the country are increasingly using e- mail to deliver messages to teachers and other staff , students and the outside community-and to hear from them as well. "I probably get 75 to 100 e-mails a day and I respond to them. I used to get that many phone calls in a day. I don't get many phone calls now. It's interesting how the world has changed," says Randy Dozier, superintendent of the Georgetown County (S.C.) School District.

Group Mailings

One advantage of e-mail for administrators is being able to reach selected groups of people at the same time with a consistent message. In the Red Clay district, all school principals are on a single list, "so with one e-mail, you can reach all of them," Conway says.

Similarly, in Georgetown County it's broken down into different categories. "We can do group e-mails to principals, other administrators, teachers, assistants, or all our 1,600 employees," Dozier says. "For a rural district we're probably on the cutting edge."

In many districts, administrators and teachers use e-mail to communicate externally as well as internally. Red Clay district teachers use it to communicate with parents on "run-of-the-mill" matters, such as parent meetings and other class activities, says Conway.

"That's not to say teachers don't call parents when they have to, because there are some issues where e-mail is not appropriate and they really need to talk to the parent. But for routine stuff , like providing school schedules and other basic information, e-mail is used heavily in teacher- parent communication," she says.

One anonymous parent who e-mails teachers and administrators in her daughter's New York school says an advantage is that it creates a written record of communication. "It's harder for districts to say things such as they didn't get the voice mail," she asserts.

"It seems like the teachers I deal with all have laptops and answer questions throughout the day in e-mail. It's been really tremendous, and I believe it also saves teachers meetings and in-person time with parents," the mother says.

In the Christina district, meanwhile, about 4,500 people have subscribed to the district's free e-mail newsletter. Most users are parents, but there are other community members who just want to keep updated on what's going on in the district, says Lapham.

Issued at least monthly and more frequently as events dictate, and usually in full color with photographs, CSD E-News is a mix of hard news about relevant developments in the district and state government as well as features about what's going on with students in school, Lapham says.

A June issue reported how one elementary school's students won a T-shirt design and logo contest. Another in May reported how state police and school officials worked together to charge a seventhgrade student in a case involving a threatening note at a middle school.

Christina administrators also use the e-mail newsletter to quickly alert parents and other community members about school closings because of power outages or adverse weather. Lapham says some subscribers have asked to receive CSD E-News at their worksite e-mail addresses because that's where they check e-mail most frequently.

The district is encouraging more people to subscribe by posting information about it on its Web site. "The electronic delivery of information is an efficient way for us to get information out and to reach thousands of people we never could afford to reach through traditional direct mail," Lapham says.

Quick Reach

Whether it's no power or bad weather or something worse, being able to reach key audiences quickly when it is urgent to do so, particularly when the safety of children is involved, is a key benefit that e-mail provides to district administrators. "The number one concern that administration and staff have is the safety of the children in the schools," says Behlow.

Although the murders of the three Oswego children-two from elementary schools and one a junior high student- and their mother occurred in June off school grounds (their father subsequently was arrested and charged with the crime), Behlow felt it was essential that the district's staff know what happened. To notify them, he used the Honeywell Instant Alert system, which includes e-mail as well as phone, cell phone, pager and PDA formats. "In the old days, we might have done it through a phone tree or an e-mail blast, but there would be no consistency in the content of the message and no record of whether it was received," Behlow says. "In a sensitive or emergency situation, we need something else."

The district did not e-mail anything about the murders to parents but posted information on its Web site about counseling that was available.

"You have to communicate at today's speed or you're not being efficient."-Judith Conway, instructional technology coach, Red Clay (Del.) School District

E-mail is a common instructional tool in many classrooms. Because it is primarily a written form of communication, it is a "wonderful vehicle" for improving students' writing skills, says Conway.

It also can motivate students in projects that require them to communicate with students in other classrooms or even in other regions of the country, Conway says. One benefit is the opportunity it offers to break down prejudices that some students might have. When communicating by e-mail, questions of race, age, gender and looks blur.

A big issue for administrators is protecting their e-mail systems against inappropriate uses-guarding against what goes out and what comes in.

"The system is there and you can use it. Just use it in the correct way, for instruction and information," Dozier says he tells his staff , particularly teachers. "Using it for shopping or to check your e-mail at home doesn't sound like a big issue, but when you're doing it during the day and taking away from instructional time, it's a problem for me."

He also hopes students are using e-mail for educational purposes. Somebody in the district's technology office tries to monitor what students are doing and if they're on a site they shouldn't be on, they inform Dozier, who puts a stop to it.

Security for Students

Warner says the Saginaw district provides e-mail accounts for all its 10,000 students and 1,500 staff members. But while administrators wanted even the youngest students to have e-mail access for instructional purposes, there was concern that administrators couldn't guarantee that some of the worst spam would not show up in their accounts, Warner says.

So the district began using the Barracuda Spam Firewall to block all inbound e-mail to students in pre-K5. "They can e-mail back and forth with their teachers and within the district, and they can send e-mail outside, although we don't encourage that or teach them how to do it," Warner says. "But we're trying to achieve zero spam, and the only way to do that was to not allow any inbound messaging from the outside to those accounts. That has made people more comfortable about letting the younger kids have accounts."

While students in grade 6 and above can get e-mail from outside, there has been much debate about where to draw the line. "We actually started higher, blocking it for junior high as well, but we ran into too many instances where junior high kids had connections with students who were friends, neighbors or relatives at other schools, so we knocked the age limit down a bit," Warner says. "It seems to be working where it is now."

Using white lists and black lists in spam filters can help in blocking unwanted messages and allowing other harmless mails to get through. Barracuda uses these lists, which it calls "block" lists, as part of its e-mail security protection.

"In a sensitive or emergency situation, we need something else."-David L. Behlow, superintendent, Oswego (Ill.) Community Unit School District

White lists contain domains and e-mail addresses-of students' parents, for example- that district administrators deem acceptable so that mail received from them will be allowed to go through. Black lists identify known spam servers so that Barracuda can block them. Barracuda maintains its own block list, and customers have the option to use others.

The Millard (Neb.) Public Schools use a different type of system, Gaggle.Net, to provide safe e-mail accounts for students. On Gaggle.Net, teachers control what can be written and who can correspond with students.

All e-mail is checked against a list of about 250 inappropriate words and phrases, and messages containing those words are automatically rerouted to a teacher's account. Then the teacher decides whether or not the student gets to see the message. Gaggle.Net also takes a visual fingerprint of any graphic, whether embedded in the e-mail or attached to it, to determine whether it might be pornographic.

"It's all about parents and teachers wanting to keep their students safe," says Mary Ehlers, an instructional technology facilitator in the Millard district. "This is like a digital locker within a school building. It allows us to see what's happening in a student's account."

The district is working now with Gaggle. Net to let parents monitor their own children's accounts as well, Ehlers adds.

Technology Challenges

As with just about all technology, keeping updated on e-mail takes some getting used to for administrators and teachers. There are never enough hours in the day for teachers, who face a learning curve to adapt to Gaggle.Net, says Ehlers.

Probably the worst event that can happen is common to computer users everywhere-a crash. "When it crashes, everything comes to a standstill," says Dozier. "That's why we have a backup phone system that operates via cell towers. And if the phone lines go down, our walkie-talkie phones still operate."

But "e-mail is huge for us," he says. "I'm not saying the phone is obsolete, but most communication I get comes via e-mail-from parents, even from the public. I've got one from a mom asking about cheerleaders. Someone else is asking about recycling. You would be surprised at the number of things I get. The technology has made my life easier, and the pluses far outweigh the minuses."

Alan Dessoff is a freelance writer based in Maryland.