Oct 12 2006

School Finds Benefits by Staying Ahead of High-Tech Curve

A New York school district is preparing for a major network overhaul to keep its students and administrators operating at full speed.

Being of ahead of the curve often means waiting years for the payoff. That’s certainly the case with the Blind Brook School District.

The district, which oversees an elementary school and a middle/high school in Rye Brook, N.Y., has long championed technology in the classroom, using tools such as whiteboards and electronic libraries. More than a decade ago, it had the foresight to install fiber-optic cable—a technology that, at the time, promised to bring high-speed connections to a network.

In an unexpected turn of events, the district’s capacity needs have outgrown the network’s capacity. This prompted Christine Coleman, Blind Brook’s director of technology, to initiate a massive overhaul of the district’s network infrastructure. It’s the first phase of a three-year technology initiative, and Blind Brook’s approach serves as an example of how forward-thinking school districts can implement change and keep moving ahead of the curve.

Catching Up

In the 1990s, fiber-optic technology was all the rage. Since data is transmitted through light waves rather than copper wires, networks could operate at almost unlimited bandwidth. On the downside, these systems required hardware that was very expensive at the time. For example, the typical fiber-compatible switch cost about four times as much as a copper-based switch—a price point that was out of reach for a budget-constrained public school district.

Though Blind Brook couldn’t afford the switches and routers that would have fully supported them, they were able to get by with the equipment they already had because network capacity wasn’t an issue. However, as more students used the network to run increasingly heavier bandwidth-intensive applications, the school district’s 12-year-old network began to run at a snail’s pace.

Today, with 1,400 students, 202 faculty and staff members, and 555 computers, the network can no longer handle the data burden. Furthermore, it’s not allowing administrators to take full advantage of other technology upgrades.

“We’re running new [PCs] on a really antiquated system,” Coleman points out. “Our current infrastructure is running at 10Mbps [megabits per second], and it’s bringing down the signal to the workstation level at 3Mbps and 4Mbps. Hardware-wise, we’re well-equipped. It’s our pipes that are too small. We need to kick it up a notch.”

Boosting the system is vital, since Blind Brook has been at the forefront of bringing technology to the classroom. The schools supplement classroom discussions with such tools as Columbia American History Online, BrainPop animated tutorials, AP Potential and Web Collection Plus. This puts the district’s entire library collection online and enables students to reserve or renew books from the collection and browse the stacks remotely.

In addition, the district has adapted technology to fit specific academic disciplines. Science students studying weather patterns, for example, use computer animation to illustrate how cloud formations progress and create storm patterns. In the Ridge Street Elementary School’s music lab, students use computers to compose scores, combine different styles of music and play back the results through stereo equipment. Many of these tools, however, become tedious to use if the signals are received from the network at only 4Mbps.

“We’ve been having printing problems, logging in takes a couple of minutes, and the speed of applications being pulled off the network in our elementary environment has been problematic,” Coleman explains. “In our middle/high school, where we’ve seen more and more usage the last couple of years, speed is really important. Data will be pulled down a lot quicker for our users after this upgrade.”

The network upgrade is also expected to reduce the number of calls to the district’s IT help desk. According to Coleman, between September and November 2003, there were 709 help desk repairs in the Ridge Street Elementary School and 315 in the Blind Brook Middle School/High School.

Starting Over

The timing is right to rebuild the network. Hybrid network devices that work with both Ethernet and fiber networks are affordable, enabling Blind Brook to make the move.

To get started on the overhaul, Coleman enlisted the services of Cisco Systems and CDW•G to survey the network and make recommendations. The needs assessment, which was completed in November 2003, showed an extensive list of problems.

“We found frayed fiber in our closets and poor electrical wiring,” she says. “We also found that the grounding on our racks needed to be checked by electricians; patch cords, fiber and copper needed to be replaced; and we needed better ventilation in the data facility closets.”

The vendors advised Coleman to test and recertify all the fiber and copper cabling; remove all existing hubs, switches, routers and transceivers; and install new switches and routers throughout each facility. They recommended rebuilding all five data facility closets. “They’re not enclosed, they’re not locked and they basically sit in custodial closets,” she says.

The ultimate goal is to provide dedicated 100Mbps connections for each user, with scalability to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) connections. The backbone of this project involves adding new routers that can be upgraded to accommodate new, faster technologies. The switches will incorporate gigabit interface converter (GBIC) modules, which allow the fiber-optic system to work within a standard Ethernet environment.

“We’re going to have brand new chassis, brand new servers, and backup and security measures on the network,” Coleman says.

On July 1, about 15 to 20 technicians will descend on Blind Brook, and installation is slated for completion by late August, just in time for the new school year. Still, the timing creates a logistical problem for the district.

“Steps have begun to determine what types of backup I’m going to need for district administrators who are here in the summer, so they can continue working on the network,” Coleman explains. “I think we’re going to build a mini-network for them while we bring down the rest of the network.”

Going Forward

The network project’s total budget is $417,000, according to Coleman. Blind Brook has an installment purchase agreement in the works through the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), which provides IT services to public schools. If the proposal is approved, Blind Brook will receive partial reimbursement—typically between 40 and 55 percent—for the project. BOCES will also handle the equipment installation, although Blind Brook will be responsible for making the purchases.

Coleman has applied for E-Rate funding, a federal program that provides eligible K-12 public schools with discounts ranging between 20 and 90 percent for approved telecommunications, Internet access and internal connections costs.

With funding initiatives under way, Coleman hasn’t had to face any unwelcome surprises so far, and she attributes the smooth sailing to proper planning.

“One of the most important factors of a project this size is careful strategic planning,” she says. “Of course, when we start breaking down the network and going into these closets and taking things out, I don’t know what we’re going to find, but provisions have been made for that. The best thing about this process is knowing that we’re going to provide a really stable environment for our users.”

During the next two years, Coleman will build the network, focusing on Internet security upgrades, including firewall support and possibly installing a cache server to streamline the routing of network traffic. She’ll also be exploring convergence technologies such as Voice over Internet Protocol for videoconferencing.

In 2006, the technology plan calls for network software upgrades, support renewal on the Cisco equipment and adding additional layers of Internet security. It’s that type of forward thinking that should make the project a long-term success.

“It’s so hard to predict what’s going to happen in technology,” Coleman acknowledges. “But we know that for the next three years our network will be current and expandable.”

With its long-overdue network overhaul, she hopes the technology will finally match the district’s aspirations.

“Technology is only as good as how it works,” Coleman says. “If it doesn’t work, people get frustrated and won’t use it. If we can design it to work all the time, we’ll have better and increased use of the system.”

John Frederick Moore, a Chicago-based freelance writer, has covered technology issues for more than 10 years and is a frequent contributor to Ed Tech.

Blind Brook School District
Rye Brook, NY

Vital Statistic

Students: 1,400

Faculty and staff: 202

High school graduation rate (2002): 98.6 percent

Computers: 555 (315 elementary; 240 middle/high school)

Student to computer ratio: 2.5:1

Districtwide Web-based e-mail

Voice and data T1 lines

Remote access for 6-12 teachers and administrators