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Wiregrass Ranch High turns to texting to reach kids

WESLEY CHAPEL — Robyn White had a message for the students and parents of Wiregrass Ranch High School.

The school would hold a curriculum fair at 6 p.m. Tuesday to help next year's students decide which electives they might want to take.

The news appeared in the school newsletter, and also in a separate flier that went home in the mail. But White knew that papers rarely make it into the hands of parents, and even less often get read by teens.

So she decided to send out a text message.

It's the way kids communicate, White explained, adding quickly that they wouldn't be getting the message until 4 p.m. — well after classes end.

Wiregrass Ranch High has taken a teen-friendly approach to technology for the past several years. The administration lets students use their phones and MP3 players when they're not in class, and encourages teachers to incorporate smart phone research into classroom assignments as appropriate.

Teachers blog. Kids use laptops to take notes. And, since December, the assistant principal texts.

It's a pilot program for SchoolConnects, the same system the Pasco County School District uses to send robocall messages to home phones. Wiregrass Ranch principal Ray Bonti volunteered to be one of two schools nationally to try the texting, using cell phone numbers that students and parents voluntarily submitted.

"Communicating with kids and parents today, with the traditional approach of sending a newsletter home or a phone call, you don't get the same results," Bonti said.

Seniors Meaghan McGovern and Dwayne Houston couldn't agree more.

Both carry their phones with them all day — Meaghan likes her Droid while Dwayne prefers his iPhone — and they text whenever they can. They guessed that they send and receive at least 600 messages a day, enough to need to clear their in-boxes daily.

"It's just the age of information," Dwayne said. "You get information, you give information."

And getting info from the school via text makes a lot of sense.

"A lot of the stuff is online, and you don't really think to go online," Meaghan said. "Especially as a senior, there's a lot of dates you have to remember. You just need the reminder because there are so many things you have to remember."

Both seniors added that their parents don't pay much attention to their home phones, either, making voice mail less reliable. The fact that the school understands the way teens operate these days and goes with the flow rather than fighting it also makes the school seem more cool.

"When I first got it, it was a surprise," Dwayne said of the school's first text message. "When I read it, I was like, this is really cool. This is good."

White said she makes sure not to send texts to students during the school day. Some teachers don't allow cell phones on in their classrooms, and the last thing the school needs to do is get a kid in trouble.

She also makes sure to set an end time for sending of about 9 p.m., so people aren't disturbed late. That's more for parents than kids, White acknowledged, but still, it's just polite.

The texts she sends are limited to 140 characters, the length of a tweet, though she has not resorted to using Twitter to practice. Neither has she started using common texting abbreviations, so "see you" isn't "C-U" to save on space.

"There are occasions when I run out of characters and have to rethink what I say," White said, laughing.

At some point, Bonti said, he would like to set up an official Facebook page to reach out to parents and students, too. But that can prove complicated, he noted, so district officials are still working on policies to ensure that if a school did that, it wouldn't run into problems.

So for now, at least, texting is the thing.

Robocalls, too.

"We don't have every parent with a cell phone number," Bonti said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Wiregrass Ranch High turns to texting to reach kids 02/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 11, 2011 8:15pm]
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