Making the Grade

School institute helps put focus back on learning

To create a safe school environment that allows teachers and students to focus on learning, the Palm Beach County, Fla., School District created the Safe Schools Institute (SSI). The facility encompasses what it takes to create a safe, productive learning environment -- from physical and psychological safety to establishing an academic climate. Adjacent to the institute, Don Estridge High Tech Middle School provides a venue where the concepts developed at the institute can be tested and put into practice.

The facility encompasses what it takes to create a safe, productive learning environment -- from physical and psychological safety to establishing an academic climate.

SSI grew out of a need to address school safety. Its mission has expanded far beyond obvious physical concerns. Today, it focuses on the entire learning environment, serving the varied needs of teachers, staff, students and parents.

Planning for School Safety
Within the framework of the institute, the district has partnered with companies that provide security and educational tools. The approach helps the district explore and evaluate new technologies.

Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies partnered with SSI to provide a broad range of security products, including door hardware, key systems and locks, proximity card readers and mobile CCTV, as well as biometric hand readers.

Don Estridge High Tech Middle School has 76 classrooms with more than 1,200 students in grades six through eight. Concepts developed at SSI are put into practice at the school. Principal Debra Johnson said that creating a safe environment for learning is one key to the school's success.

"We want the students to feel that, when they come into the school, they can put away the fears that might come from an insecure environment or negative past events," Johnson said. "If you provide a safe environment, they will feel at ease. Just as important is the need to remove distractions to allow teachers and students alike to focus on instruction or fulfilling the school's primary mission -- educating all its students."

Another factor is the need to create a teaching and learning climate that produces more effective results.

"We started looking at student engagement, building learning stamina, learning styles and seamless integration of products," Johnson said. "A major goal was to reduce redundant work for teachers, giving them more time to use effectively with students. We want to build life-long learners and help students apply the skills they learn to real-world experiences."

Products Improve Security, Add Convenience
Attendance taking can be a major distraction for both teachers and students alike.

"It's very time-consuming for a teacher to have to call 25 names before starting a lesson," Johnson said. "A bigger problem is when someone arrives five minutes late and the teacher has to stop to mark the attendance record, or if they forget, the student is recorded as absent."

To eliminate the distraction and automate the attendance records, the school is installing a Schlage Recognition Systems biometric hand reader that uses hand geometry technology to map and verify the size and shape of a person's hand in less than a second. Because the readers are equipped for a network connection, the technology is easy to integrate into a school-wide attendance system.

A HandKey reader will be installed in every classroom, and students will scan their hands when they enter the room. Johnson said that students arrive at a classroom progressively and will scan progressively to minimize the potential for a bottleneck.

"Having one in every classroom gives us an attendance in each class, which in summation provides the attendance for the day," Johnson said. "Thus, there is no need to have them scan at the front door."

The access control system will include Schlage Cylindrical VIP locks that incorporate a proximity card reader on each classroom door so teachers can access their classrooms without needing a key. The locks connect to a panel interface board that captures all monitoring at a remote station. The system also will make it possible to lock all classroom doors from a single location in a crisis.

"If there is a threat to the school, an administrator or school police officer will be able to lock down the school from a desktop computer or possibly from a remote we can carry with us," Johnson said.

The access control system is managed by Schlage Security Management System software, which operates in recent Windows® environments and is compatible with current software industry standards.

Key locks, which in many cases will function as backups to the card access system, are being converted from an older restricted numbered keyway system to a Schlage Everest restricted keyway system. The system provides the protection of patent law and eliminates the possibility of having keys duplicated. Under the restricted Everest system, blanks are only available to authorized individuals from the manufacturer.

Creating a Safe Environment
As with some large school districts, Palm Beach County has its own police department. Jim Kelly leads 184 law enforcement officers and 285 total employees. Kelly said there are additional uses for hand geometry readers beyond classroom attendance functions.

"In Florida, we have the Jessica Lunsford Act, which requires that we fingerprint every contractor who works for the school district," Kelly said. "We could use the hand readers to verify their identity more accurately than with an ID card. We also could use it for parents or people they authorize to pick up their children. It takes away all the guesswork and the need for IDs."

To further improve security, the school is installing digital CCTV cameras that also will be used for teacher training and development. As part of the program, the district has equipped some school buses with Ingersoll Rand SMS MVC-4 mobile video communicators. The units provide GPS tracking of the bus, video recording and transmitting of up to a four-camera view with sound capability and a live video viewing option. Hand readers also can be used with the device, which allow attendance to be taken on the bus.

"Security and academics are so intertwined that you have to look at them together," Kelly said. "You can't learn if you don't feel safe, and you can't teach if you don't feel safe. That's why we look at everything we do to ensure that we create that safe and nurturing environment."

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