It’s a nightmare that has caused numerous elementary school administrators and teachers to wake up in a cold sweat: A distraught woman approaches a few minutes after school ends, asking “Where’s my son?”
“Oh, he went with his father today. Did the two of you get your schedules crossed?”
“I took my son and left my husband…he can’t pick him up anymore! I told them in the office this morning, didn’t the word get to you yet?”
But in Albany, Ky., that nightmare has been banished for good with the development of Albany Elementary’s Student Management Transportation Solution (SMT), a QR code-based system that ensures incidents like the one described above will never happen.
Tim Armstrong, who has served as the school’s principal for 18 years, knew the potential problems in the school’s paper-based afterschool pick-up program, which ranged from a lag in updating pickup authorization to children racing through the parking lot in front of oncoming cars. For several years, he searched for a system to meet his needs and couldn’t find what he wanted anywhere, so he worked with a local company to create SMT at no charge to the school system. In its first full year of use during the 2015-2016 school year, Albany Elementary averaged 147 student pickups daily, with no problems.
“Previously, after the buses left, the adults who were picking up children came to a specific door into the gymnasium, and we paired them up. We’re located in a beautiful rural area between two lakes, and there was a time when I knew all of our parents and guardians personally, but that’s changing,” Armstrong says. “And then one winter day, we had two children who ran ahead in the parking lot as they left the building, and both were nearly hit by drivers who weren’t paying enough attention. These are my kids and I feel responsible, and I decided then we had to come up with our own solution.”
Using SMT, Armstrong staffs a Wi-Fi-equipped booth outside the building, where he uses a tablet computer to check in adults making a pickup. Each authorized adult — not each family — has a unique assigned QR code, which is associated with a photo of the authorized individual and the names and photos of children that the adult may pick up. If a mother makes the pickup on Monday, the father on Tuesday and a grandparent on Wednesday, that’s all recorded in the system. Updates occur in real time: if that father is called out of town on a specific Tuesday, and a grandparent is coming in his place, that reported change gets to Armstrong instantly.
In the booth, Armstrong submits the names of children waiting for pickup into the system, and their names appear, in order, on a monitor in the gym. Staff members in the gym line the children up in pickup order and escort them to the door, where they put the children directly into the back seat of authorized, waiting vehicles. At that point, staff once again scan the QR code, and the school has documentation of the date and the time the child was picked up, who made the pickup and who escorted the child to the vehicle. And compared to the previous system, it takes place in a small fraction of the time.
“We have some 2,200 people authorized to pick up more than 550 children, in various combinations of children and days. Custody constantly changes. Children move from home to living with a near-relative to foster care. We couldn’t carry around the amount of paperwork required to keep track of all that, but now, if we’ve been told about restrictions, we know it,” Armstrong says. “And our parents think this is the greatest thing ever. I had some the first year who tested it by trying to use someone else’s QR code, and they were very pleased when I caught them.”
From his position in the booth, Armstrong can also call an immediate lockdown inside the school if he sees something suspicious in a vehicle, such as a weapon, and he can use a two-way radio to make immediate contact with 911 and the state police. Albany Elementary also uses SMT to generate visitors’ passes during the school day, and monitors show the names of all visitors in the building at a given time, along with the reason for their visit. When a visitor leaves, SMT creates a time-stamped record of the checkout.
The school also uses the system to track the comings and goings of roving teachers for classes such as art and physical education, and can generate a watch list of individuals who are considered potential troublemakers. And in the event of an electrical failure, teachers do have printed information for each student, which is regenerated every time information is updated in the system. Plans call for ongoing improvements to include incorporating bus information into the system.
“We created this to solve the problem we had here at Albany Elementary, but other schools are interested as well,” Armstrong says. The Walker Early Learning Center in nearby Wayne County has begun using the system for its young pupils, and Armstrong has given presentations on SMT throughout the state, including at the summer 2016 Kentucky Association of School Administrators conference.
“It solves so many problems that principals face nowadays, and principals and teachers have enough stress in their lives already. It was an undertaking to get it in place, but now we only have to do updates and add each year’s incoming class,” Armstrong says. “I could have retired two years ago, but this gives me the peace of mind I need to stay on.”