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Schenectady principal invites texting

Thursday, January 31, 2013
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In this January 2013 photo, Schenectady High School Principal Diane Wilkinson explains how students and parents can use Google Voice to improve communication with her.
Photographer: John Enger
In this January 2013 photo, Schenectady High School Principal Diane Wilkinson explains how students and parents can use Google Voice to improve communication with her.

— It was a plea written long after the school day ended, by a boy who didn’t expect anyone to hear him.

“I’m failing math and I don’t know what to do,” he wrote.

He texted the message to a new number set up by Schenectady High School Principal Diane Wilkinson, who had been entertaining messages about ice cream machines and Christmas caroling. Unbeknownst to him, she was responding to every message she received. And when she got his text, late in the evening, she wrote back at once.

She told him his guidance counselor had many options — Honors Society tutors and even professional tutors who could come to the building during one of his free periods.

“A lot of people don’t want to stay after school. They have a job, for example,” Wilkinson said.

He didn’t respond to her suggestions. “I gave it a day,” she said. “Then I kept bothering him. ‘Did you reach out to your guidance counselor?’ No response. So I prompted him again.”

After two days, he wrote back: He’d seen his guidance counselor and was getting a tutor.

Wilkinson texted back quickly: “Excellent. Great job!”

Late last year, Wilkinson set up a Google Voice account to accept text messages she could display on the computer screen in her office. The goal was to facilitate communication.

Texting seemed the natural choice.

“This is their world, in part,” she said.

At first, there weren’t many earth-shattering messages. A student texted her to complain about the cafeteria ice cream machine, which was turning off 15 minutes before the end of the last lunch period.

Workers had forgotten to adjust it when the lunch times were changed this year, Wilkinson said. The machine is on only during lunch, to prevent students from buying ice cream all day.

But students quickly began to realize texting could solve their problems. Even teachers started to rely on it.

In a college-level Spanish class just before Christmas, students discussed caroling in Spanish to other Spanish classes, but no one was sure such a disruption would be allowed.

“The teacher said, ‘Let’s text the principal and see if it’s OK,’ ” Wilkinson said.

She gave her approval, and the Spanish students spent the rest of the period singing.

More recently, Wilkinson invited a student to a daylong planning session with the school board because of a text.

“I was texting with a student who was interested in making a difference,” Wilkinson said. “I said, ‘You totally have to come to the summit.’ ”

Student Council members had been invited, but not other students. Wilkinson sent the girl an invite, and she showed up, spending the entire day brainstorming in small groups on how to make the district better.

Now parents are texting Wilkinson, too. One parent recently sent her a text complaining about the new federal food requirements, which reduce the amount of protein and carbohydrates a student can be served while requiring they be served more fruits and vegetables. Students aren’t eating the fruits and vegetables, leaving them hungry.

“There’s been quite a few complaints,” Wilkinson said.

In response, Wilkinson set up “recycling boxes” in the cafeteria for students to turn in unopened and uneaten food. After lunch, the boxes are distributed to the student offices, where hungry students can grab an apple or a fruit cup.

“That way, if they get hungry, it’s, ‘All right, here you go, back to class,’ ” Wilkinson said.

There have been a few less-productive texts.

“I had one where a student started the conversation with a ‘Yo!’ I said, ‘How about a ‘Hello’ instead?’ ” she said.

But overall, it’s been a great success.

“I have been so thrilled,” she said. “I love it. It allows me to have that reciprocal communication.”

And, on occasion, it allows her to stop someone from slipping through the cracks.

“The one with the tutoring, you have a kid who really doesn’t know where to turn,” she said. “I could tell him that we do have resources.”

The texting number is 227-0310.

 
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