Sep 21 2007

Staying in Touch

Keeping rural schools connected can be a challenge, but these districts share the secrets of their successes.

Although the bulk of national attention hits urban schools, school districts come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes making sure the more rural schools in your district are connected, whether you come from an urban area or not, can be the biggest challenge a district IT leader faces. But as these four examples show, ingenuity and an ability to choose the right technology can make all your schools feel as though they are located down the street.

Lower Kuskokwim School District, western Alaska

Next year, the district is planning to use microwave to communicate between its wide area network and 28 schools spread across 44,000 square miles, says Ted Berry, technology coordinator. A local ISP has already built microwave towers throughout the area so everyone can communicate off one system.

“Microwave requires line of sight and, because of the curvature of the earth, multiple microwave towers are needed over long distances,” says Berry. “But we prefer microwave because it’s faster and cheaper. At present, we use a combination of satellite and microwave.”

Albany County School District, Laramie, Wyo.

Although most of its 21 schools are in Laramie and use T1 lines to access the wide area network, three rural schools in the 2,000-square-mile county lack WAN access. But this fall, they’ll switch from using satellite, which connects them only to the Internet, to their own virtual private network that will be a split tunnel, says Justin Bingham, senior technician.

“They’ll use half of their VPN to get into our network and the other half for their Internet connection,” Bingham explains.

Pike County School District, Pikeville, Ky.

All of the district’s 25 campuses, spread over 900 square miles, are connected to its WAN with help from a local service provider, says Clayton Potter, network administrator. Each school relies on the provider’s Ethernet service, which uses 10 gigabit fiber optics to connect to the district’s WAN.

“The layout is called a frame cloud,” says Potter, adding that the provider’s network communicates between its central office and three remote offices. “All schools, even those in rural areas, use a one gigabit fiber connection to the provider’s network.”

Jefferson County Public Schools, Golden, Colo.

The district connected 148 schools to its WAN. However, 13 rural charter schools, which belong to the 800-square-mile school district, have no access. Several years ago, the district placed key applications on the Web and built a virtual private network for more sensitive applications, says Scott Bell, executive director of infrastructure services.

“By Web-enabling our applications, those rural schools can connect their local area network to the Internet through their own ISP and access all of our applications,” he says. “It seems to be working very well.”