Oct 31 2006

Tips for Building a Leading-Edge Infrastructure

Doctors Charter School in Florida enhances communications through its built-in leading-edge infrastructure.


When Doctors Charter School in Miami Shores, Fla., moved into its newly constructed building in 2005, the facility came equipped with a state-of-the-art communications and information technology infrastructure that might be the envy of many college campuses.

The combined middle and senior high school, which is offering instruction for grades six through 11 in the 2006–2007 school year and will expand to grades six through 12 for 2007–2008, boasts a Voice over Internet Protocol telephone network and high-bandwidth computing capabilities throughout the building.

The board of directors of the school, which is part of the Miami-Dade County Public School District, wanted to ensure that the infrastructure supported not only the communications and computing needs of today’s students, faculty and staff, but also the requirements of the school community for years to come.

Having high-quality communications “was a top priority when [organizers] first started planning the school,” says Marge Wessel, executive director of Doctors Charter. Wessel says the board selected VoIP technology and other infrastructure components with input from some of the parents of school students.

By The Numbers

50,000-square-foot building, 525 students, 25 classrooms, 28 PCs planned for computer lab, 65 VoIP phones, 4 mobile notebook carts

Doctors Charter School was built on five acres of land owned by Barry University. Besides classrooms, there are four science labs, an art room, a music room, a media center and a cafeteria/auditorium.

Communication Is Key

One of the top priorities of school planners was to enable high-quality, efficient communications, so that parents, teachers, administrative staff and members of the community could easily get in touch with one another whenever they needed. As with other charter schools, parents of Doctors Charter students are heavily involved in the students’ education, and want to be able to easily communicate with teachers, participate in school activities and take part in decision-making.

Doctors Charter began installing components of its infrastructure, including routers and VoIP switches from Cisco Systems, during the spring of 2005, says Jorge Camacho, technology integration specialist at the school. About 65 VoIP phones were installed, including one in each of the classrooms. Each teacher and staff member was given an individual voice mailbox.

The phones in the classrooms are programmed not to ring, so that they don’t disturb classes in session, Camacho says. But parents, administrative staff members and others can leave voice-mail messages for teachers on their individual mailboxes.

Enhanced Voice Mail

One of the most useful features of the VoIP system is the ability to create voice-mail groups, so a department head can send messages to all of the people in his or her department. For example, the principal can send a message to all school administrators or to all the teachers in a particular department.

The school also installed Gigabit Ethernet connectivity from the network backbone to individual desktop PCs, providing the bandwidth needed for a variety of
newer applications, such as streaming video and podcasting, as well as for Internet access, e-mail and other applications.

Doctors Charter uses four mobile notebook carts that are shared among the classes. The school has begun installing desktop computers in each of the classrooms for additional computing capacity, with the goal of having five to eight PCs in each room, Camacho says. The school is also creating a computer lab that eventually will include 28 workstations, he says.

Storage and Security

To support the expected growth in the volume of data and the number of applications, Doctors Charter has deployed servers with nearly 2 terabytes of storage, Camacho says. For information security, the school has implemented products including a network firewall, Web content-filtering software and antivirus software. Doctors Charter also is looking into investing in intrusion detection software to bolster network security even more, Camacho says.

The school’s network capabilities give teachers, staff and parents an easier way to communicate than the typical phone systems, and the reaction in the school community has been positive. “Parents say they like this very much because communication is open, and they can e-mail and call, and the teachers call them back right away,” says Wessel.

Employees of the school are also pleased. “We rely heavily on the network to communicate to students, parents and teachers,” says Patty Walker, media center specialist at the school. “Very little paper work is sent in-house; we communicate with each other, as a faculty, via e-mail. It is a much more efficient way to work.”

Walker is responsible for producing the school’s weekly newsletter, Doctors Note, which is posted on its Web site along with news, events, faculty information and general information about the school. “This year, teachers are posting homework online, and students and parents may access it wherever they have Internet access,” Walker says. “This helps prevent confusion and is extremely helpful when a student is absent and misses assignments.”

Ready for the Future

As Doctors Charter adds computers to its classrooms, “our potential to use the network will grow,” Walker says. “Students will be able to create products such as PowerPoint presentations. Our multimedia projectors already in place in every classroom will help with that.”

The heavy-duty infrastructure is designed to support high-bandwidth applications and the communications needs of the school for the foreseeable future. Camacho says school planners thought it made sense because the building was new, to create an infrastructure using the most up-to-date technologies.

“We wanted state-of-the-art technology that going forward will present us with a lot of opportunities,” Camacho says. “We should not have to say, ‘We can’t do this or that because we don’t have the infrastructure or bandwidth in place.’ We should be able to handle anything that comes in the future.” For example, one of the applications the school would like to support is videocasting, where teachers can use notebook computers to prepare and present lessons to their classes.

Another potential use of the campus infrastructure is streaming video. “People could make morning announcements using video instead of over the intercom,” Camacho says. “This would also allow students to create their own broadcasts, so it [presents] new applications for students” to develop writing and speaking skills.

Yet another application expected to emerge is podcasting. Teachers and administrators could create podcasts that let parents know about special events coming up and other activities, Camacho says. Because every classroom in the school has an LCD projector, teachers can project their podcasts to the class, he says.

Among the applications that teachers now use are online grade-book systems that allow parents to keep track of their child’s grades and attendance records without having to wait for progress reports to come home. Teachers place the information on the Internet using the software, and parents can access the data using a password.

Having a leading-edge infrastructure creates opportunities but presents challenges. One of the biggest, Camacho says, is providing the support that’s needed despite limited IT resources. “The challenge is the breadth of the technology,” he says. “I’m the only one who supports this. In most [large organizations], you’d have one person handling network administration, another managing desktops and another doing the Web site.”

Still, the benefits of the technology for the school community far outweigh the challenges.

Tips for Building a Leading-Edge Infrastructure

  • When selecting the technology components and rollout schedule, take into account the users of the technology and their requirements. Avoid introducing too many new elements at the same time so as not to overwhelm students, faculty and staff.
  • Involve teachers and administrators in the technology selection process and network planning, as they will be the primary users.
  • If you’re planning to use high-bandwidth applications such as video, be sure to deploy network equipment that will support those applications and allow for growth and scalability.
  • Put in place adequate security technologies, such as robust firewalls, content filtering, antivirus software and other products.
  • If your IT department is small and resources are limited, make sure you get help from online technology resources and advice from colleagues who have deployed similar technology.