Jul 23 2007

From Historic to Futuristic

Newport News sets out to make modern history by building a secure, high-capacity wireless network.

Newport News sets out to make modern history by building a secure, high-capacity wireless network.

Back in 2001, the school district in Virginia’s Newport News was limping through the digital age with a network that hardly did justice to its 45 schools and 32,600 students, let alone a new century.

Those schools and the district’s administrative offices shared a wireless connection with other municipal sites in this coastal Virginia city. The educational part of the network consisted of haphazard access points (12 to 15 in each elementary and middle school and 25 to 35 in the high schools). Each access point supported only 11 simultaneous connections at a speed of just 11 megabytes.


“The end-user technology was outgrowing the infrastructure,” recalls Jack Bowden, the district’s supervisor of networking and communication services. “In a classroom with 20 to 24 portable notebooks, less than half could connect at the same time.”

At a Glance

The Newport News Public Schools have 40 elementary, middle and high schools, as well as five early-childhood education centers. For the 2006–2007 school year, 32,593 students enrolled. In 2005–2006, 38 schools received full state accreditation. For eight years running, SchoolMatch, a school research and data consulting firm, has recognized the NNPS division as “What Parents Want in Public Education.” (One in six school divisions nationwide receive that designation.) All five Newport News high schools have been included among the best 1,300 in the country by Newsweek.

Newport News is famous for the historic battle off its coast between the Monitor and the Merrimack during the Civil War, and its school system dates back almost that far. The district’s technology department set out to make new history when it decided to build a secure, high-capacity and easily managed wireless network that was cost effective.

Network Makeover

If reaching the decision was hard, the work was even more difficult. “It was a fairly large leap for us,” says Bowden, “because we had to redesign the wireless network for every school and administrative site. We were taking a Studebaker and putting in a Corvette engine.”

It didn’t take a car salesman to sell the need for a multimillion dollar effort to reinvent the network from the bottom up. “We’ve been fortunate to have a school board that’s very supportive of technology,” says Paul Lubic, the executive director of the district’s technology services department.

Newport News Public Schools considered three vendors before choosing 3Com equipment for its product prices and ease in creating virtual networks. A four-year phased-in reconstruction of the existing infrastructure followed. The process started with a year-long installation of hundreds of 3Com wireless access point switches throughout the schools and administrative buildings. Each switch could accommodate as many as 50 users, a fivefold increase over the old system.

In 2004, the district deployed a districtwide, point-to-point dedicated wide area network connecting to every building through T1 lines. The upgrade also included 3Com’s enterprise management suite and dozens of SuperStack Gigabit switches.

“Instead of managing more than 640 access points, we can manage 47 of these switches, mostly from a central office,” Bowden explains. “As soon as something goes down, we can find the problem and fix it, sometimes before the end user even knows it.”

“It keeps our support costs low and enables quicker responses,” adds Lubic, who says the district’s location along a narrow 19-mile peninsula can require as much as 45 minutes travel time for technical house calls. Onsite technical support specialists still handle garden-variety e-mail, printing and rebooting problems. But the central office networking staff has shrunk from eight to four.

Cutting the Cord

The Newport News technology staff has also created a separate virtual local area network for students, faculty and computing devices at each school. All administrative and faculty networks are encrypted, and the student versions — currently protected by password and limited access software — will follow suit this fall.

Equally important was the development a year later of a fiber-optic WAN. It was put in place to monitor and control all mechanical systems, such as heating and air conditioning, at considerable cost savings. “Imagine having about 3,000 programmable thermostats,” suggests Bowden.

But the new WAN has allowed much more than efficient facilities management. It delivers two gigabytes of speed to the district’s high schools and one gigabyte to other schools. “It’s outrageously fast,” says Lubic, who adds that in the long run he expects to save money over leasing connectivity from local telecom companies. Those expenses could run more than $17,000 a month for a district the size of Newport News.

The final step in the network’s extreme makeover involved going wireless, a transition that was completed last year and included a 3Com Wireless LAN Controller WX4400 at each site. According to Bowden, the decision was easy because the district’s current technology plan requires much greater integration between computing and instruction.

“In order to use technology in the classroom, it’s not cost effective to put 24 drops in each room,” he says. “And what wireless technology was five years ago isn’t close to what it is today.”

Teachers and administrators alike have noticed the difference. Principal Stephanie Bourgeois says Crittenden Middle School now has 200 wireless computers for students and all teachers.

“The way you know it’s working well is that you can take access for granted. Teachers don’t have to worry first about the technology and then deciding whether or not to risk it in class,” she says. “And they don’t have to get into the computer lab to do what they want to do.”

Nor does Bourgeois have to come in on weekends to do her work. “I used to spend many weekends in my office. Now I can see my work from home,” she says.

Real-Time Bus Management

The improved network has extended as far as the district’s transportation system. “We’re very data driven,” says Frank Labrecque, the district’s executive director for transportation. He manages 414 buses, their drivers and young riders with a software program that connects to the district’s geographic information system and global positioning system.

Besides managing the day-to-day delivery of students to school and home again, Labrecque has to program more than 30,000 special requests a year, from dropping individual children off at day-care sites to arranging class field trips to equipping substitute drivers with real-time student lists.

Labrecque also adjusts bus schedules by overlaying real-time GPS information onto route maps. Using the GPS, he even can tell when a bus is speeding. “All of that wouldn’t have happened before,” he says.

What’s more, the transportation staff is freed from maintaining the local servers, a task now left to the IT central office. Maintaining the bus fleet has become easier as well. All records and the manuals are online.

Building the new infrastructure in phases has helped reduce problems along the way, says Bowden. The main problem so far, he notes, has been “bleed-over” from networks in surrounding homes and businesses, which causes computing devices in schools to lock onto the wrong signal. The remedy, he adds, has been to fine-tune the school-based wireless access points.

One challenge going forward is continuing to expand, says Bob Suhay, the 3Com systems engineer who has worked with Newport News since 2002. In particular, Suhay stresses the value of adding voice over IP, along with the task of justifying the capital expense.

Taking Advantage

The larger challenge for technical staff and educators alike is making productive use of those new gigabytes of bandwidth. “It’s changed our vision of what we can do,” says Bourgeois. “Now the emphasis is on getting teachers trained in how to use technology as a tool to enhance instruction.”

Lubic envisions math teachers using network-addressable LCD projectors and interactive whiteboards, with students’ calculators connected wirelessly.

“We’re positioned to go where we want to go in the classroom,” Lubic concludes. “We have lots of growth space. There’s nothing we’d be asked to do that we couldn’t provide.”

The Newport News Public Schools are just revving up the new Corvette.

Preparation Points

Those involved with the rollout of the Newport News Public Schools’ new network offer some suggestions for districts looking to follow suit.

  • “You need to have a well-planned-out and detailed design,” recommends Jack Bowden, the district’s supervisor of networking and communication services. Take redundancy and scalability into account and avoid having to make design changes in the middle of the project.
  • Consider your return on investment as well as your continuing costs such as annual service contracts and eventual upgrades, Bowden adds.
  • Work with other entities in the school system, says Paul Lubic, the executive director of the NNPS technology services department. “You’ve got to have your school board and school district leadership supporting the effort,” he says. “You also have got to have your technical department and instructional services working arm in arm in order to integrate the new technology structure into the classroom.”