The Denton ISD makes its technology progress conventional through solid planning and execution.
information technology officials dream of getting to make that one decision that improves everything they oversee. Officials in the Denton (Texas) Independent School District found their answer in just two letters: IP.
More specifically, Denton, a growing suburban district north of Dallas, made the move to what is being called Everything over Internet Protocol, where all the district’s services run over IP lines.
Denton’s always been a tech K–12 leader — it was the first district in the country to convert to a Cisco Voice over Internet Protocol telephony system — so its latest decision isn’t surprising. While the benefits of the decision are easy to see, in a sense the work has just started for this district, which spreads over 180 square miles. The main impetus for the decision was to improve communication; the district installed an emergency notification system, video on demand and video conferencing. But beyond these improvements, the system seems to boost all the IT department’s offerings, making everything from e-mail to its student information database run smoothly.
For most school districts covering 180 square miles and two different area codes, just getting phone service under control would be a challenge. For Denton, it’s been a way to save money, improve service and, because people can reach one other with just four digits, make this large district feel a little smaller.
The district has gone with Cisco phones for four years, and it saves $350,000 a year. “We’d be paying a local Bell system for telephones, and with Cisco, we don’t have that associated cost, just the one-time cost for networking infrastructure,” says Roy Verges, Denton’s distance learning coordinator.
A single person manages all the phones in the district of 1,200 employees, and there’s a phone in every classroom and office of every school. “If one breaks down,” says Verges, “we have a person on campus to take care of it. Otherwise we would have to go to a phone provider and get them to come in and troubleshoot. That’s not ideal when the problem might not be on our campus but a phone switching box a mile away.
” A feature of the Cisco voice solution was Cisco Emergency Responder. The responder is a component of the Cisco Unified Communication Solution that provides near real-time notification of 911 calls, says Verges.
“By integrating the School Messenger application with the Unified Communications Solution, they were able to save operating expenses by using existing phone connectivity to the phone network, as well as decentralizing the outbound call scheduling to the school level. Now the individual schools can set up and schedule school-specific calls,” says Dewayne Walker, account manager for Cisco.
The district’s move to IP also allowed it to upgrade its TV offerings and distance learning capabilities.
“We set up a cable TV provider and split it into nine different ways to hook it up,” Verges says. “It goes to separate IPTV servers, and they are controlled by an IP content manager — every computer in the district can get the same image. This means every principal or teacher can tune in to the IPTV client to choose their signal, double click and they’re watching TV.” Some of the benefits include weather channels that can help track dangerous storms, public television and special purposes like swim meets.
“There’s video at the stadium and even hookups to remote control cameras for football games. We configure on IPTV servers from MPEG1 to MPEG4, and we will create a television studio and set up live TV instruction where people will demonstrate how teachers or administrators can do something on camera. We stream it into a computer and convert it to MPEG4 and then dump it on the IPTV server. It’s all through multicasting, which keeps network traffic down and the network bandwidth scaled,” he adds.
The district has about one terabyte of archived content, both items created in-district and material purchased from content providers. The district recently enabled the video telephony component of the Cisco Unified Communications Solution, which — by using Cisco Video Advantage cameras — was able to provide scheduled and ad hoc video conferencing, says Walker. This allowed the district to reduce travel time to and from administration and school sites for meetings.
One of the ways the IP network helped improve other services came where some would least expect it: e-mail. The district wanted to change from Novell to Outlook. “It was hard trying to get users to understand the vision before they could see it,” says Andrew Collins, Denton’s network engineer. “The timeframe was difficult because of the school calendar — we can’t do much during the normal class schedule so it pushes everything during the summer.
“We had to be meticulous and get the most accomplished before teachers and students came back — being fully operational was key. The planning portion started in November of 2005, where we started talking to consulting firms to get preliminary data, and that January, did the active design sessions.” In March 2006, the district started building infrastructure by acquiring additional hardware to run two systems at once — additional servers for its paperless project. Finally, it completed the e-mail migration, moving users over, and that was the end of May.
Making Sure It Computes
Denton also joined the 24 x 7 connected world by installing Cisco wireless solutions in the schools to provide for the use of notebook carts and furnish administrators with personal digital assistants to give them instant access to student scheduling. But with the upgrades came further concern that data could be compromised, from financial data to sensitive student information.
“Most of the data rolls into a zone integration server, which will act as a central hub to have student information and financial information,” says Walker. “Other databases can be transferred in between those so once we get the registration process, we won’t have to worry about duplication between all data sources.”
But the upgrades also allow for distance learning, says Verges, so it’s vital to keep equipment up-to-date. “Schools have an advantage” when using certain video management systems because these systems can allow greater control for setting connections between different points within and outside an area. Some systems allow administrators to keep track of units and schedule connections remotely, Verges says.
Verges sees a strong future for Denton, particularly on the video end. “We want to have our own video storage area network and on-demand video for educational topics in the future. The idea is that any student who’s in front of a computer could download any video anytime or a teacher could coordinate from a central network to their school overnight to keep bandwidth down.”
Still, realistically, it remains to be seen if options such as a video network provider for two-way television will happen, because of the district’s budget constraints. “What you always have to convince your district,” explains Verges, “is that the investment now will pay off in the future. Most of the tech- nology we’ve gone with has done just that.”
Both Linda Cole and Andrew Collins say Denton’s strong infrastructure allows the growing district to improve services and simplify IT management.
Photo Credit: DAN BRYANT
Video Conferencing in California
While Denton is obviously a tech- forward district, it’s certainly not the only one using IP for video conferencing. California’s Imperial County Office of Education has used its gigabit Ethernet network for video conferencing since 2004. The county office has 200 active videoconferencing devices currently on its network, all using H.323 IP videoconferencing.
Director Todd Finnell says the next big use for IP video will occur when schools use the technology to collaborate and trade professional development ideas.
The K–12 High Speed Network is a state program that develops network connectivity, Internet services, videoconferencing coordination and support for California’s K–12 community. This group also allows K–12 districts to participate in the California Research and Education Network. This high-speed, high- bandwidth network links 72 K–12 sites and about 150 other sites, including many community colleges.
It’s often said that a technological team is only as strong as its help desk. For customer support manager Linda Cole, her help desk, which fields an average of 300 calls a day, isn’t just a place for her to retrieve complaints but an attempt to stop problems before the phone ever rings.
“We have the ability to remove any machine on the network and that has helped a great deal,” she says. “Our help desk center has 16 monitors that take in every aspect of the network that could be down. Through individual switches, we can notify engineers even before they realize there is an issue and can use Cisco information for that.”
Referring to the Cisco Information Center funneled through simple network management protocol connections, Cole says it stands out for revealing when the power has gone out, how many spam e-mails are coming through and even the top URL that the students are surfing.
But the final important aspect that makes the help desk flow, says Cole, is a focus on empathy. “We’re always reminding ourselves to never talk over the person with the problem — just because we understand the problem doesn’t mean they do.”