Technology brings schools, parents closer

by nathan oster

If you’re a techie, there’s a whole lot to “like” about some of the new tools that Big Horn County School District No. 3 will be unveiling in the coming days — and no, it has nothing to do with Facebook.

Starting this fall, parents will be able to make online payments for lunch tickets, track when their children get on and off the school buses and even sign up for news and sports alerts directly from the schools.

“Our kids are so technology-smart nowadays, and it seems as if education has always lagged a little behind,” said Supt. Barry Bryant. “Well we’re trying to bring the school district into the 21st century with respect to technology.

“The idea is to push more information out to the community, make things easier to find and enhance the feedback that we receive,”

When school begins next week, all of the district’s buses will be equipped with GPSs, but that the system won’t be fully implemented until sometime in September, after a Sept. 5 training session for school personnel.

Once it is up and running, personnel will be able to immediately determine the location of a bus.  If a school bus is being driven too fast, or if it is stopped for too long in one place, the superintendent will be alerted.

As part of its two-year contract with Zonar, the district will also have the ability to issue ID cards to students who ride the bus. If they swipe them when they get on and get off the bus, administrators and parents will be able to use a secure app to find out what time they got on an off, as well as where.

“It’s not something that could be read from far away — it’s a quick pass card that uses the same type of technology (that’s used by, among others, Maverik Country Store).  When they swipe their cards, it goes into our system that they are, in fact, on the bus.”

Bryant said the ID cards are just another step in the evolution, noting that the elementary school two years ago implemented a system in which each student had a card which showed where he or she would be going at the end of the school day.

“This will help with that,” Bryant said. “It’s an added benefit – for not a lot of extra money.”

The terms of the two-year contract call for the school district to pay $16,000, most of which is needed to pay for the GPS equipment and for the first year of services.

Using a GPS radio signal, the district also expects to be able to better communicate with its bus drivers whose routes take them outside radio or cell coverage.  Some areas around Shell fit that category.

Bryant said the district has also purchased a number of new iPads, Kindles and e-book readers and that they would continue to be transitioned into the classrooms.  He said the district has about 50 iPads.

“Until now they’ve mainly gone to special needs, but we’re going to be working them into the classrooms some more, and the school board will switch to iPads too as we start to go paperless with all of our meeting stuff.”

Through a new E-funds for Schools program, parents will have the option this fall of paying for their children’s lunches online.  The program will not cost the district a penny, Bryant said, adding that the way it’s set up, the cost is passed on to parents who use the service.

Bryant emphasized that parents will still be able to make cash and check payments for school lunches, just as they have always done, either by sending payments with their children or by visiting the schools.

With the “convenience fee” of about 3 percent factored in, parents would pay more by purchasing lunch tickets online.   And the additional money would go to the company running the service, not the district.

“When parents sign onto their PowerSchool account, they can go to E-funds for Schools, set up their account and check their balances,” Bryant said.

An E-funds for Schools link will also be one of the features of the new Big Horn County School District No. 3 app for Android and Apple users. By downloading the app, you can read the GHS Hoofbeats publication, find links to all the school district’s online offerings, even link up with the school libraries, which have been online for the past three years.

Also on the app, there will be a tipline where information can be shared with the schools anonymously  — whether it be about “some type of threat, a safety risk, or concerns about bullying.”    Bryant himself will receive summariers of the report.

“The idea of the app is to get more information to parents,” he said. “We can push out sports scores and news stories to keep parents more informed.”

Title money was used to purchase the app.  The district paid $1,300, but is getting two years of service for the price of one, Bryant said.