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High-Tech Unit Snitches on Truants

September 07, 1986|BRUCE KEPPEL

With school reopening Monday through much of the Southland, many secondary schools are gearing up automated systems aimed at keeping attendance at a maximum by alerting parents when their children miss class. The stake, for the schools, is financial: State aid is based on "average attendance days," and the more students present each day, the more money the district receives.

The vast Los Angeles Unified School District will be using 125 robotic dialing machines to help track truants at its 130 junior and senior high schools. Manufactured by Melita Electronics in Atlanta, each $9,000, cassette-equipped machine contacts four households at a time with a recorded message alerting parents whose children missed class that day. The machines together can make as many as 2,000 phone calls an evening.

The machines are not yet used for the district's 400 elementary schools, where attendance is relatively high, said attendance administrator Don Bolton. In the secondary schools, however, an average of 16% of the students are absent on any given school day.

"That's pretty high," Bolton commented. "We try to recoup all we can."

In neighboring Santa Monica, David Graves thinks that schools can "recoup" even more. Graves, president of fledgling Autocomm, believes that his tiny company has a better approach to tracking absentees--a machine that uses proprietary software, synthesized speech technology from Texas Instruments and existing IBM-compatible personal computers.

Autocomm's Messenger takes advantage of the computer, Graves said, to send out messages in a variety of languages, receive recorded responses and generate a report of what happened on each call. Using the computer, messages can be highly selective, routed only to infinitely selective audiences meeting up to nine changeable criteria--in effect, telling Messenger to deliver a specified message in a specified language to each number on the calling list.

A complete unit costs about $8,000, Graves said, and proportionately less if the customer already has a compatible personal computer.

High schools in Beverly Hills, Montebello, San Bernardino and Palm Springs used Messenger during the last school year, and Santa Monica High School and Troy High in Fullerton will begin using the unit this week, according to Cecilia Pfeiffer, Autocomm's vice president of sales. About 100 units are in use nationwide, she said.

Richard S. Hill, former principal of Montebello High School and now director of curriculum for the Montebello School District, said the automated system both improved productivity and reduced heavy manpower costs.

"For us it was wonderful," Hill said.

Ironically, the software behind Messenger was inspired by Los Angeles Unified School District, Autocomm's Graves said.

The district had asked R. V. Weatherford Co. in Pasadena, which then serviced its computers, to develop an automated calling device. When Weatherford pulled out of that business, Graves said, he and several other Weatherford employees who worked on the Messenger development bought the rights and formed Autocomm to produce the units, the first of which was shipped in March, 1985.

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