Manuel Zamudio (left) and Ryan Altemeyer say that deploying a modern wireless network was critical to helping Monterey Peninsula Unified School District meet its evolving technology and educational goals.

Oct 31 2012

Monterey Peninsula USD Transforms Learning with Wireless Upgrade

A network overhaul sets the stage for future technology enhancements and improved student achievement in central California.

For Dr. Marilyn Shepherd, superintendent of the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District in central California, the inspiration for a districtwide technology overhaul came from her personal experience as a mother and grandmother. A decade ago, one of Shepherd's daughters, a special-needs student, made great strides in her learning when she was allowed to use a notebook computer in school. Today, Shepherd's 4-year-old granddaughter already knows how to run apps on a smartphone. The next generation will demand even more technology, Shepherd says.

To illustrate the point, Shepherd recalls a district teacher who took his students to Fisherman's Wharf Monterey for an oceanography class. The teacher had the students use their phones to take pictures of the algae underneath the wharf and of the marine life discussed in class. "Instead of fighting the fact that kids have cell phones, we need to use the technology to engage them" in learning, Shepherd says. "We need to give them the tools to which they've become accustomed."

Team Effort

Understanding that the budget climate in California four years ago would make it difficult to fund new ­technology projects, Shepherd worked with the local school board to draft a general obligation bond for the infrastructure overhaul. At the time, the district of 10,600 students was very much in need of an upgrade, says Ryan Altemeyer, MPUSD's director of information technology. It was using a hodgepodge of different ­technologies that were antiquated, inconsistent and incompatible, he adds, and many schools could barely get old-fashioned dial-up speeds to the Internet.

Initial work on the overhaul started in spring 2010, supported by local capital facilities improvement monies and federal E-Rate funds, and in November 2010, voters passed a $110 million bond to fund the project.

Given the green light by the administration and the community, Altemeyer has focused on overhauling the network at each of the district's 20 schools in Marina, Monterey and Seaside; building out campus wireless; and rolling out IP-based phones.

New gear includes Category-6 cabling and wireless access points from Cisco Systems, as well as Cisco IP phones, switches, gateways and wireless controllers. According to Altemeyer, a 100-megabits-per-second ­connection over a fiber-optic network connects the main data center in Monterey to each of the schools. Many of the schools with larger data requirements have a 10 Gigabit Ethernet backbone with 1 Gig-E to the desktops.

Rolling out wireless was especially important because some of the buildings in the district date back to the 1830s, and some of the classrooms had only one electric outlet. "We realized that everyone is bringing notebooks, smartphones and tablets to school today, so we had to have a wireless network in place," Altemeyer explains. "Our idea was that if students were going to bring these devices to school, why not let them use these tools for learning?"

24 The number of remote learning sessions Monterey Peninsula Unified School District can run with its Cisco Systems video conferencing equipment

Once the initial configurations were built, the ­network upgrades at the schools went very smoothly. But along the way, IT staff realized that the main data center also needed a refresh. "As our infrastructure grew, so, too, did our need to remodel our data center," says Systems Administrator Manuel Zamudio. "Much of the equipment in the old data center was antiquated, so to continue the rollout and bring on new sites, we needed an upgrade." The district deployed APC InRow cooling and APC Symmetra battery backup, power ­conditioning and power distribution units.

The data center refresh was mostly completed by late spring 2011, Zamudio says, after which the team transitioned to upgrading the network infrastructure at seven schools. This fall, IT staff will finish upgrading the networks at the remaining schools.

Altemeyer says the assistance of CDW•G engineers has proved invaluable throughout the course of the ­multistage project. He first collaborated with CDW•G on a server virtualization rollout in spring 2010, and since then, CDW•G has helped Altemeyer and his team with a Microsoft Windows Active Directory application and with the deployment of wireless networks at four schools.

"It all happened very quickly," Altemeyer says of the many projects on which CDW•G has consulted. "They became an extension of my IT department."

More Is More

MPUSD's new wireless network is benefitting all ­stakeholders, including school principals, who used to conduct teacher evaluations on paper. Now, some of them are running tablet-based evaluation apps instead. "We used to have to come back to the office and sit at a desktop," says Joan Nugent, principal at Seaside Middle School. "Now, I can sit in class and use the tablet" to take notes and write evaluations. The technology is great for physical education teachers as well, she adds, because it lets them take attendance out in the field.

Having an upgraded wireless network also accelerated the district's notebook program. Altemeyer says MPUSD is about halfway through rolling out roughly 1,400 Lenovo ThinkPad X130e notebooks to the schools so students can take tests online during the district's six testing periods throughout the school year. Moving ­forward, teachers and administrators will have near-real-time feedback on student performance.

"The technology is turning us into a 'yes' organization," Altemeyer says. "In the past, I would tell teachers and administrators that they couldn't use tablets or roll out notebook carts or stream Internet video. Now, we can do all of those things, and we have a more stable and uniform network environment to support it."

Finally, by moving to a Voice over IP system, the ­district now runs its voice and data systems over a single network. This not only saves thousands of dollars on redundant phone lines, it also lets MPUSD modernize the intercom system by installing IP-based speakers in all 581 classrooms. According to Altemeyer, some of the classroom intercoms were nearly 20 years old. The new technology, which runs over Singlewire's InformaCast, offers centralized management and the ability to send announcements from any location. Administrators also can send emergency text messages, and the school bells are synchronized between classes.

These enhancements are having their desired effect, he adds, noting that since the 2012–2013 school year began on Aug. 8, the principal at one of the district's largest schools had no immediate complaints when asked how the technology was working this year. Overall, Altemeyer says IT emergency calls from ­principals and staff are down significantly.

"The new network expanded our bandwidth," ­confirms Seaside Middle School's Nugent. "It lets teachers use computers at the same time without slowing down the network. The combination of wireless with the mobile devices really makes our jobs easier."

Seeing Is Believing

An upgraded network and a Cisco Systems grant have made it possible for California's Monterey Peninsula Unified School District to take advantage of video conferencing and the distance learning opportunities such technology enables. The back-end system consists of two devices that sit in the district's data center: a bridge that connects the video calls and a network processor that manages the video.

A video codec deployed at Marina High School will let the school run distance learning sessions with the researchers and scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, which has the same bridge and processor setup at its data center, in a pilot program taking place this fall.

Once the district understands video conferencing better, it will bring on other guest speakers and do recruiting sessions via video conferencing, says MPUSD Director of Information Technology Ryan Altemeyer. "Without the upgraded network, as recently as two years ago, even if Cisco offered the grant to us, we weren't in a position to take advantage of it," Altemeyer says. "Now, we have many more options for collaboration between students and teachers and outside speakers, sessions that can further our educational goals."

Join us on April 16, 2013 for a webinar focusing on outside-the-box thinking and innovative technologies that drive schools’ successful distance learning programs. Learn more and register here.

Patrick Tehan

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