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Computers may deliver school news


Harford County is trying to take the sting out of complaints of failure to communicate, by using computers to better inform residents of public school news.

The idea to use computer bulletin boards stemmed from a survey in the fall that found the most frequent complaint among residents was a lack of information to make informed decisions about key issues affecting education.

The county decided to tap into the growing number of households that now have personal computers.

"More than one-third of all households in the county have personal computers," said Thomas W. Small, who designed the survey for the school system.

"We could reach these people with a 24-hour computer bulletin board that could include information on school activities and even contain tips for assisting parents to help their kids with homework or educational games for students," he said.

Dr. Small said such a computer system would cost "peanuts" to create but stressed that so far the concept is only an idea.

Details such as how much it would cost, how it would operate or what information it would contain are still not complete.

Dr. Small said the need for better communication between the schools and county residents was one of the most frequent requests on the survey of about 10,000 county residents.

The survey was distributed to 16,600 randomly selected parents, students, staff members, senior citizens, business people and community members.

Results of the poll were released in December but analyzing the data and finding ways to incorporate the information into the school system will take a lot of time, Dr. Small said.

Ronald Eaton, vice president of the school board, said he requested the 75-question survey because it was important to find out what the school system's "customers" thought.

"The residents of Harford County are our stockholders. They have a tremendous amount of their tax dollars invested in the school system, and we should be giving them the best possible product," Mr. Eaton said at a school board meeting in Bel Air last week.

This year the school system received more than 53 percent, or $87 million, of its operating budget from the county.

The total budget is $164.3 million.

Finding better ways to communicate, especially with parents, is essential because more than 62 percent of the families in Harford County have two working parents, Dr. Small said.

That's the second highest rate in the state, according to census figures, he said.

Only Montgomery County is higher, Dr. Small said.

The state average is 48 percent and the national average is 35 percent, he said.

Another possible communication solution would be to develop a weekly cable television show that would feature a different school or subject each week, Dr. Small said.

School Superintendent Ray R. Keech said better communication also means teaching administrators and teachers how to handle phone calls.

"We know from the survey that 90 percent of parents make their decisions on how they were treated by the way their telephone calls were handled," Dr. Keech said.

"That might mean tapping into programs to train and help our employees be better able to make people feel comfortable and welcome," he said.

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