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Schools' new e-mail system goes online

August 23, 2001

Communicating with teachers has become easier for parents with children in Fairfax County's public schools, thanks to a new e-mail system installed over the summer break.

County school officials hope the programs also can provide better communications between the school system's administrators and teachers.

The new e-mail system, which took about three months to put in place, uses Microsoft Outlook and Exchange, with an e-mail address for each of the school system's 13,000 teachers and enough capacity to serve them and about 7,000 other school employees.

The system also has other uses.

``Its very easy to use," said Cris Bradshaw, technology specialist at Oakton High School. ``It's an alternative to playing telephone tag, and it works very well. Students use e-mail to ask questions from home and [they] can send assignments to teachers through e-mail."

The new system makes teachers' e-mail addresses easier to understand. Each address is the teacher's full first name and last name with ``" on the end.

The e-mail system previously used by the county would crash when traffic got too heavy, causing teachers to lose important messages from parents and other administrators, even those from students containing academic assignments.

At Centreville High last year, the school's e-mail often would shut down for two to three days, eliminating electronic communication between parents and teachers, said Pamela Latt, the school's principal.

``It's a major accomplishment for our staff," said Maribeth Luftglass, assistant superintendent in the Department of Information Technology. ``We wanted to have it done before all of the teachers came back from the summer. It was a mammoth project."

The school system generates about 4 million e-mail messages each month, Luftglass said. The new e-mail programs also can be accessed by teachers from home.

The cost to maintain the Outlook and Exchange programs will not cause any spending increases, she said.

``I find it to be more stable," said Suzanne Sessere, a technology specialist at Glen Forest Elementary School.

To switch the e-mail system, about 20,000 accounts had to be converted from the old system and new accounts had to be added in a very short time, Sessere said.

Schools are starting to use e-mail to communicate important information.

``Its easier for [teachers] to e-mail you than it is [for them] to answer a bunch of [telephone messages]," said Margaret Thaxton, president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at W.T. Woodson High School. ``If this new e-mail has been implemented, it is a perfect opportunity. Teachers are very good about giving out their e-mail addresses. If e-mail is available, I think it is a great vehicle."

The concern from parents about access to teachers via e-mail probably differs, depending on the number of parents with home computers at each school, Sessere said.

Bradshaw said concern from parents about computers are a normal casualty of using computers, just like any other business. Oakton has used Outlook for three years, she said.

At South Lakes High, e-mail problems were rarely experienced because the school has a strong technology infrastructure, said Rely Rodriguez, the school's principal. But every so often the system would crash, she said.

At Centreville High School, slow or crashing e-mail presented more of a recognized problem in the past.

``The last system was so unreliable, it wasn't funny," Latt said. ``[Now] I can send out a notice inviting [staff] to a meeting. It's always hard for parents to reach teachers."


By ANDREI BLAKELY, Journal staff writer


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