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Lifting the Community

Sound system allows instructors to teach students with enthusiasm

The Ron Clark Academy is arguably one of the most renowned middle schools (grades six through eight) in America. Carved out of an abandoned 100-year-old factory in the heart of one of Atlanta’s most distressed neighborhoods, it strives to “help lift up the community as well as the kids,” co-founder Ron Clark said.

The academy also is extremely focused on its mission—teaching.

Teaching students: Drawn from Atlanta’s 13 metro districts, students are carefully selected to maintain a balanced enrollment of onethird transfers who excelled in their previous school, one-third average achievers and one-third students whose prior academic experience was marked by bad grades and/or behavioral problems.

Teaching teachers: More than 3,000 teachers from the United States and as many as 44 other countries annually visit the academy to gather insight for their classrooms, attend workshops on teaching techniques and lesson planning, and learn about the latest technology and its proper place in the overall educational equation.

Teaching the world: Additional thousands of educators download lessons, view instructional videos, take part in live chats and discussions, and access a host of other resources from the academy-sponsored, nonprofit (all proceeds go to fund academy scholarships) Great American Teachers’ Club distance-learning website.

Even still, the Ron Clark Academy faces the same safety, security and communication challenges as every other school. Its directors turned to Panasonic’s Classroom Audio and Security Alert System to meet those challenges, provide a secure environment for teachers and students, and enable teachers to communicate effectively despite the miserable acoustics inherent in a 19th-century factory building with “legacy” exposed pipes and metal ductwork. Deployed in August 2008, the classroom audio component of the system features wearable pendantstyle teacher microphones and wireless handheld student microphones. The microphones connect to a remote, multi-channel amplifier/ receiver and ceiling-mounted speakers via infrared technology. Teachers who wish to archive a lesson, demonstration or presentation use it daily.

“We looked at a number of systems, and Panasonic’s classroom audio was the best,” Clark said. “The sound was crisp, it was clear, it was easy to use, and it projected throughout the room beautifully.”

Using SAFARI Montage-powered ViewPath video/audio management software, teachers can initiate recording and use a desktop mouse or laptop touchpad to easily pan, zoom, tilt and rotate a Panasonic PTZ network camera mounted in the ceiling. Administrators can also use the system for such tasks as remote teacher evaluation and student behavior monitoring.

“Instead of having to schedule someone to come in with a camera, tripod and recording device, you just press a button and you’re onscreen,” said Kim Bearden, Academy co-founder, executive director and language arts instructor. She noted that the recorded lessons are used for teacher self-evaluations, staff discussions about teaching techniques, and creating content for GreatAmericanTeachers.com.

“At this point, we’ve barely touched the benefits this technology offers our student body and other schools as well,” she said.

Clark is not shy about admitting that “we’re very different here. . . .We’re innovative and creative, we get really high test scores, and we have the opposite of a truancy problem: Kids come to school sick. We can’t get them to stay home.

“We want to share that innovation and creativity,” he added. “We want people all over the country and around the globe to have the option of watching our world-class teachers building and maintaining a culture where students would rather be in class than at home with iPods and video games. The Panasonic System is a wonderful product for helping us achieve that goal while, at the same time, keeping us comfortable and safe.”

It also was, according to Bearden, a quantum leap from “loud talking” and “going home hoarse” every day.

“I can whisper something from any spot in a huge classroom and it sounds like I’m whispering directly into the ear of every student,” said Bearden, who, like Clark, is a Disney Teacher of the Year Award winner.

“I’ve been teaching for 24 years, and I will never teach without this system again. It’s amazing how having the microphone changes things. All of a sudden you can start using nuances and vocal inflections to add drama and emotion to the story you’re telling.

“I used to feel like I was yelling all the time and still many of the students misheard me. I’d look at three sets of notes and see three wildly different versions of what I’d said. Now I don’t find that nearly as often.”

Both Bearden and Clark also give the system’s student microphones high marks.

“A lot of our students are soft-spoken,” Clark said. “Give them a microphone, and they become loud and clear. I think it gives them confidence, which, in turn, makes them more articulate. They become more excited, more passionate about what they’re saying.”

“When one of the students takes the microphone from another, there’s a transference of power,” Bearden said. “The student with the microphone knows the class is going to hear what he or she says, that the comments are going to seem more important. They also know they can’t get away with mumbling when they don’t know the answer. It makes it harder to be invisible.”

The system’s benefits extend beyond general classroom management, though.

“The system’s major benefit is offering teachers an additional layer of security. . . . It makes us feel confident and safe in our environment,” Clark said. “I know that if anything were to happen—God forbid—we would be alerted immediately. I know that the incident is going to be recorded and captured. I know that we have a definite, rock-solid system in place to help us deal with whatever.”

To alert administrators, trigger the microphone and cameras to begin recording and streaming data to a monitoring station, and send e-mail blasts to first-responders, “all I have to do is reach up and very discreetly press a button on the pendant,” Bearden said. “I don’t have to run somewhere or draw attention to myself.”

She adds that another “brilliant feature" is the system’s ability to trigger location-specific alarms and audio/video feeds whether she is in her own classroom, another teacher’s classroom, or a hallway or other common area.

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