Seamless Connections

Monroe County Schools finds stability, strength and administrative ease.

GUEST COLUMN | by Valerie Mercer

CREDIT ShoreTelThe Monroe County School System is a dynamic public school system located in the heart of Georgia near both Macon and Atlanta. Our system is known throughout the state for its tradition of educational excellence for all students. Since the establishment of the first school in Monroe County in the 1800s, Monroe County School System has worked to build a strong educational program demonstrating pride, tradition, and academic excellence.

The uniqueness of Monroe County Schools lies in the seamless connection between our schools and the community. By working together in a strong partnership, students, educators, parents, local businesses, government and community take pride in supporting all educational programs in our district. As a result, students in Monroe County Schools experience a small town atmosphere that has faded out in many parts of our state.  Monroe County Schools takes pride that we take proactive measures to communicate constantly with our stakeholders. We use an electronic newsletter emailed to over 3000 subscribers every week. We utilize callout systems and text notifications, but we suffered in a particular area: the phone system.

With a great student-to- computer ratio and a proliferation of mobile devices, learning with technology is commonplace in our system. The phone system that was throughout our schools was anything but technologically advanced. The system utilized a VOIP system that was not getting the job done. The equipment was not purchased for a large entity with multiple sites like the typical school system. With a piecemeal system that regularly went down every single workday, users were frustrated, and the public was not able to get to us as they should have been able to throughout each school day. The school system sought out a different kind of solution, and the answer was a cutting edge hosted VOIP system; however, it was clear that the implementation was not going to be a success from the start.

The vendor had no previous experience with hosted VOIP, and lost packets in a data transmission for internet connectivity is not good, but lost packets in voice transmissions can be detrimental to an organization’s reputation and its communication foundations.  When I joined Monroe County Schools as Chief Technology Officer in June of 2011, the hosted VOIP system had already been chosen, and the installation was in the works, and that year was the most challenging professional year I have ever experienced. The vendor who sold the product meant well, and there were efforts to resolve the issues, but parents were dissatisfied.  School personnel were frustrated, and I went home many evenings frustrated, exhausted, and exacerbated that I had walked into a mess.

After a year of struggling with a hosted VOIP system, the system turned to Alterra Networks of Dublin, Georgia to salvage the handset equipment and help us get to a reliable, modern phone system that we could administer ourselves as we also take care of thousands of pieces of equipment in a small school system of 4400 students.

By utilizing ShoreTel, we found flexibility and administrative capabilities that we have never had before.  Each of our teachers has reliable voicemail that integrates with their email platform. We have automated attendants that get callers to their destinations with a couple of buttons or less. We have the type of system that we can administrate without having to send technicians to school to acquire telephony certifications. We have our day-to-day challenges as everyone does with communications, but it’s been quite the learning journey.

  • Evaluate solutions thoroughly.  Have the vendor test the solution.
  • Find a solution that the organization’s IT team can manage. We have that through ShoreTel, and we’re very pleased with the flexibility of the system administration.
  • Find a vendor who will help you work through the hardware and software assets that the organization already has. Alterra Networks helped us use existing phone handsets with a ShoreTel system behind the scenes, and this helped us cut costs.
  • Don’t always believe the top product “hype.” ShoreTel is a quiet leader in telephony.  They get the job done well without having an expensive brand name attached to the solution.
  • Have users in mind when you make a solution.  Because we asked our schools to tell us how they wanted calls routed and how they preferred to have the automated attendants set up, the transition to go to a 21st century phone system was a little easier for all of us – the end users, the project manager, and the technicians charged with day-to-day upkeep.

Valerie Mercer is in her third year as Chief Technology Officer for Monroe County School System in Forsyth, Georgia. She is currently pursuing a doctorate degree in Educational Leadership from Valdosta State University. Write to: Valerie.mercer@monroe.k12.ga.us

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