Computer calls for substitutes

December 15, 1994|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Sun Staff Writer

When the phone rang on a Sunday afternoon at his home, the week's anxiety would begin for John Seaman.

As an assistant principal at Westminster High School, he was in charge of finding substitute teachers.

"Even though it was Sunday afternoon, it meant I was at work," he said, sometimes calling a dozen names per vacancy. Weekends, weeknights, early mornings.

Now that work gets done by an uncomplaining computer programmed just for such drudgery.

Last summer, Carroll County Schools bought Subfinder, an automatic calling system produced by a Texas company. It works like voice mail or telephone banking, using personal identification numbers and offering a menu of responses the caller can activate by pressing a number.

Teachers call in to log their absences and the machine immediately calls substitutes from priority lists. Principals can call in at any time to get the status of vacancies, and in the morning, they get a report on their computers.

"I can't tell you how much this system has saved me in time, not to mention anxiety," Mr. Seaman told the county school board yesterday.

"To date, I have not had a glitch where a substitute who was scheduled did not show up," he said, although there have been a few cases where the computer was unable to find a match and he had to make a few calls.

Subfinder is one of at least three trademarked automated calling systems for substitute teachers that have been in use for several years in the United States. But in Maryland, only four counties use such a system, said Penny Post, a personnel specialist in Carroll. Montgomery, St. Mary's, Wicomico and Queen Anne's counties use the system, she said, and at least one other county is considering it.

For years in Carroll, principals have been begging for some kind of centralized calling system for substitutes, whether a computer or three or four clerical workers, said William Rooney, director of personnel.

Calling substitutes stole several hours a week that could have been spent on improving instruction, they argued.

HTC "It was frustrating playing tag with other administrators," said Mr. Seaman. He would try strategies such as starting from the bottom of the alphabet, hoping to get to a substitute before he or she got snatched up by another high school.

A few school systems in Maryland use a central bank of clerical workers to call substitutes, but Subfinder turned out to be much more economical than adding the labor cost of human callers, a cost that would go up each year, Mr. Rooney said.

Subfinder cost $22,000 for the computers, software and printer, but has probably paid for itself already, he said. The only continuing cost is a maintenance agreement of about $2,000 a year.

The public school system is Carroll County's largest employer, with a work force of roughly 2,400, 1,535 of whom are teachers. When teachers are sick, someone has to be dispatched to take their place, which makes schools uniquely dependent on substitutes.

Although Subfinder is being used this year only for teachers, personnel specialists may eventually program it for use by bus drivers and other staff, even those who don't require a substitute.

"Eventually, this may be the official [employee] attendance-keeping record," Mr. Rooney said, because it automatically logs absences. "It would do away with time cards, attendance sheets, and we could feed the information directly to payroll."

"Subfinder is very user-friendly," Ms. Post said. She demonstrated the phone system for the school board yesterday, tilting a microphone toward a telephone speaker.

The board members and audience listened as she called the number and logged on with a personal identification number, much like automatic teller machines and voice mail use.

When she called as if she were a teacher, Subfinder's voice asked her whether she needed a substitute. She pressed "1" for yes.

Other questions are the reason for the absence, and whether she had any instructions for the substitute. Subfinder allows a short message that it will play back to the person who finally accepts the substitute job.

Immediately after a teacher logs an absence and hangs up, Subfinder starts calling substitutes from a series of lists: First, it calls three or four substitutes that the teacher has designated. If none of those can work, the computer starts calling from a list that the school's principal has logged in. If no one from that list accepts, it goes to a central list. If there is still no match, an administrator will be notified and a call put in to an emergency list.

When Subfinder calls a substitute, it asks first for an assigned personal identification number. It allows extra time, just in case a family member answers the phone.

It offers a job, with a date, school and other information. The substitute then has several choices: take the job, decline but be willing to hear about other positions, or decline and ask for no more calls that day.

For the substitute, the new system means one call in the morning, instead of multiple ones from different administrators.

One substitute liked the new system so much that she informed another school district where she often fills in: At yesterday's meeting, Thomas Sherwood, an administrator in charge of calling substitutes for the Littlestown Area School District just across the border in Pennsylvania came to hear more about Subfinder.

"I had to start calling substitutes in October, and it blew my mind," said Mr. Sherwood, who is one of three administrators who share the duty since the assistant superintendent stopped doing it. He's also assistant principal of Rolling Acres Elementary School.

"What I found out is, it eats out three hours of my day," he said.

He said that he may recommend that his district and five other small ones in Adams County pitch in to buy an automated system.

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