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Austin School District Giving Out GPS-Enabled Phones

Updated: Friday, November 2 2012, 10:11 PM CDT

Austin schools are handing out limited use, GPS-enabled phones to hundreds of students to use during the school day as part of a program designed to boost attendance among the most at-risk kids and keep them from falling through the cracks.

The program, run through Dallas-based AIM Truancy Solutions, covers 400 kids in eight Austin Independent School District high schools and could increase to 1,200 by year’s end. It costs about $100 per student. The district says every day a student is absent, it costs them $45 in state money, but by raising attendance by 1 percent, that could mean $5.6 million per year in extra state money.

"That's how you check in,” said one AISD student who’s gotten the phone. “They give you a schedule and everything."

This high schooler and 400 others are among the first to get the GPS-enabled devices.

"It's a kind of pre-court intervention we hadn't used before," said Lisa Goodnow of AISD.

The kids use the phones to check in several times a day with a mentor.

"You hold that down, and it lets them know they are where they say they will be," said Brian Dooley of AIM Truancy Solutions, which is helping the district run the program and providing the mentors.

“Generally there's a phone call from the mentor that morning to get up and then follow up again that morning,” said Goodnow. “’Where are you?’ and ‘I’m glad you're there.’”

"It won't be able to dial out to their friends or their buddies,” said Dooley. “They're not going to be texting their friends during class or anything like that."

The program is optional and requires parents’ permission.

“If I don't answer, they just send me a text message saying if I’m gonna make it to school or not," said the student.

Students also talk with the mentor several times a week, and as they improve, they are allowed to use the phones less and less. The calls are recorded and the mentor is able to track the phone’s location.

"Their security and safety is not compromised,” said Goodnow, who adds the district thoroughly vetted the company and the mentors. “If anything, they're safer at school than they are in the streets."

Company officials say early projections show 15 percent attendance increases among the kids using it.

"The goal would be for it to have no impact on the taxpayer," said Goodnow.

It’s a performance-based contract, so if the district doesn’t see results, they don’t pay. Grants will cover this first year and they hope future years but also say they’ll use state money gained from attendance and pay the company with part of that. Either way, both Goodnow and AIM officials say taxpayers win in the long run.

"That high school diploma is an investment in that student's future and really for the common good and the general public," said Goodnow.

AISD officials say they’ll closely examine any attendance gains at the end of the year to determine how much of it was as a result of the program.
Austin is the only local school district in the program and one of a number of cities in Texas and three other states.

By Adam BennettAustin School District Giving Out GPS-Enabled Phones


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