Washington area public schools take steps to use less paper


Students participate in class. (Jessie L. Bonner/AP)
August 22, 2012

The increasing use of technology in schools is an old story. But what about decreasing paper? As public school systems across the region seek new ways to streamline communication with parents, students and the surrounding community, they’re also making efforts to use less paper.

Frank Bellavia, a spokesman for Arlington County public schools, said the biggest step they’ve taken to eliminate paper is making their first-day packets available online. The packets, which are essentially in-depth enrollment forms, used to be filled out by parents every August the old-fashioned way: by hand, for each child.

“Online is easier for everyone,” Bellavia said. “Now, you just log in, make any changes and submit.”

Bellavia said the decision to make the switch was threefold: It saves the schools money by dodging printing costs; it helps the environment by creating less waste; and, most of all, it’s convenient.

“Parents were begging for a way to avoid this constant stream of paperwork, and we didn’t blame them — they’re busy,” he said. “People are thrilled with the change. I can imagine it’s just the beginning.”

Across the region, school officials say the chief motive for using less paper is the environment. Hillary Kirchman, the School Energy and Recycling Team (SERT) program manager for Montgomery County public schools, said classrooms are taking a holistic approach to energy conservation and reducing their carbon footprint.

“We’re putting newsletters and registration forms online, using Listservs instead of printed mailings and putting a huge emphasis on recycling,” she said. “We’re buying recycled paper and using less of it.”

Kirchman said students have embraced the county’s conservation efforts and even contributed plans of their own. As part of SERT’s Lead by Example contest, students at Northwest High School in Germantown monitored the amount of paper each department used throughout the year. When teachers needed more paper, they had to use a central copying center or fill out a formal request. The school saw a 20 percent reduction in paper use and was awarded first place.

“We take it seriously,” she said. “It’s totally integrated into our curriculum.”

Kathy Lazor, the school system’s director of material management, said shifting to Web-based communication has been a “win-win-win,” saving parents time, schools money and, of course, paper in general.

“Certainly cost is a factor, we’re always trying to be frugal,” she said, “but it’s more about responding to how we live our lives and what people want. They want things to be accessible, and these days, that means on your handheld.”

The District’s public schools are champions of digital communication, specifically social media. DCPS maintains an active Facebook account, has more than 8,600 Twitter followers and manages a YouTube page that showcases the school’s choirs, athletic achievements and award ceremonies.

But will schools phase out paper entirely? Duane Arbogast, acting deputy superintendent of Prince George’s County public schools, thinks it’s unlikely, at least in the near future. Schools are still paper-driven despite changes in how they communicate, he said.

Over the past year, the school system has experimented with Twitter accounts, an e-alert system that sends parents e-mails and text messages, and an iPhone app with information including bus schedules and lunch menus. Arbogast said the demand for multiple communication platforms such as Facebook and Twitter has become so great that Web sites are beginning to seem “obsolete.”

But their paper usage hasn’t dropped dramatically.

“We haven’t made that fundamental shift from being a paper-based system to a cyber-based system yet,” he said. “But I’d like to.”

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