It's the week before Christmas and Joan Smith is reading a pop-up version of Twas the Night Before Christmas" to her class of first-graders. In the midst of dancing sugar plums and the arrival of St. Nick, the class telephone rings.

"Whoops, can you hold my place here?" Mrs. Smith asks one of the students.

"Brian, that's for you," she says to one of her pupils, after hanging up the phone. As the teacher begins reading again, Brian hurries to his desk, gathers his things, and takes off to an appointment elsewhere.

Every classroom here at Cougar Valley Elementary School in Silverdale, Wash., is blessed with a telephone.

"Teachers have the option of having the phone ring in the room or having it go to voice mail," says principal Steve Anderson.

Most of the teachers say they let callers leave a recorded message on the voice-mail system so that calls can be returned at a convenient time. But if they're expecting a call, teachers often answer.

"If I'm available, I'll answer it," says Diane Gourley, another first-grade teacher at the school. "It saves running back and forth to the office."

The computerized phone system also provides updates on the school lunch menu, school activities, and scheduling. Parents can call at any time to hear a recording of this information.

Some Cougar Valley teachers are even leaving homework messages for parents. In the evenings, parents can call the school, enter the room number of their child's class, and get a recorded message from the teacher about what the class did that day and what homework was assigned.

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