A new and improved theater is a dramatic step up for students at Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools, say Jeffrey Bicsko and Michael Cappiello.

Jul 01 2019

Theater and Library Upgrades Set the Stage for K–12 Creatives

Audiovisual and multimedia tools breathe new life into facilities and programs.

Students at Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools are preparing for careers, but not in the way that many associate with traditional vo-tech education. These students dance, direct films, create graphic design and work sound boards, among a host of other creative endeavors. At the New Jersey school’s East Brunswick campus, much of this work happens in the auditorium, which by 2018 was decidedly insufficient.

“When I came on board, we had a top-of-the-line mixing board that was being wasted because the old sound system rattled and hummed. You couldn’t get immersive sound because the speaker system was so outdated,” says Michael Cappiello, principal of MCVTS’ East Brunswick campus. “A big part of our educational value is having the kids be very hands-on and fully immersed, and the old auditorium and equipment just couldn’t allow the students to do what they needed to do. The place was behind the times.”

A top-to-bottom upgrade of the auditorium’s audiovisual components, completed this year, has been a big leap forward. Acoustical engineers, in collaboration with theater and technical arts teachers, designed the space so that it could serve as a theater — not just an auditorium. Instead of simply adding rear-facing speakers, for instance, the school installed speakers throughout the space for a surround sound experience.

Students debuted the new equipment at the Thomas Edison Black Maria Film Festival in March, to much fanfare.

“The sound that came across — with the surround sound and the lows and the highs and the way the sound came in and out — was awesome, start to finish,” says Cappiello.

The upgrade has also opened up opportunities that weren’t possible in the past, he says. This fall, East Brunswick will launch a music technology and performance program that will incorporate the AV equipment, says Jeffrey Bicsko, MCVTS’ assistant superintendent. He was the principal at East Brunswick when the project started.

It’s coming up from the students themselves. Students are coming to school with AV and media arts skills, and they’re hungry for artistic training around these tools.”

Cory Wilkerson Education Manager, Educational Theater Association

“Our auditorium space is now a classroom used as a laboratory to learn,” says Bicsko. “Tax money is being spent on current and future industry trends that will make students very, very employable.”

He’s not alone in that conviction. Multimedia skills have become so important to the job market that more districts are incorporating them into curricula. In fact, the Educational Theatre Association is creating national standards to guide that instruction.

“The use of technology in the creative arts is definitely on the rise,” says Cory Wilkerson, the association’s education manager, who is working with the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards on the revised guidelines. “It’s coming up from the students themselves. Students are coming to school with AV and media arts skills, and they’re hungry for artistic training around these tools.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: Here are some smart ways for K–12 teachers to use AR and VR in the classroom.

Media Center Upgrades Expand Possibilities for K–12 Creativity

Deerfield Public Schools District 109 in Illinois also tackled a long-overdue upgrade to bring its AV technology into this century. Leaders wanted to get students excited about learning, says District Technology Coordinator Adam Levinstein. They were also eyeing updates to various spaces in the district’s seven buildings. Those two goals, it turns out, dovetailed nicely.

The first space they tackled was an elementary school multipurpose room used for assemblies, parent meetings and community events. It was large and echoey, Levinstein says, with 1960s-era equipment.

By late 2018, the room had been transformed with new wireless microphones, HD video projectors, custom screens and a custom speaker array.

Both middle school media centers also received a full AV build, says Andrea Trudeau, a District 109 library information specialist who directs one of the centers. The new equipment — green screens, Chromebooks, digital cameras, HP Oculus virtual reality headsets and other makerspace tools — is changing the way students learn, Trudeau says.

“I find that the kids are taking so much more ownership in their learning, and they like applying the innovative tech tools, which I think is amazing,” she says.

In a recent project, students took a virtual walk in the shoes of a refugee, exploring Tanzania via Oculus VR and reading a book called Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey. They created projects, including a stop-motion film, to share what they’d learned.


The percentage of Americans who say it’s important for children’s education to include the arts, including dance, media arts, music, theater and visual arts

Source: Americans for the Arts, “Americans Speak Out About the Arts in New Public Opinion Poll,” September 2018

“We tweeted the film and tagged the author,” Trudeau says. “She liked it so much, we were able to do a Skype session with her. None of this could have happened without the AV technology.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: Read more about how STEAM education will drive the next generation.

Increased Bandwidth Is Key to Modern K-12 Theater Systems

While high-quality speakers and lighting may be the showpiece of an AV installation, the underlying network is just as important.

Torrey Pines High School, part of the San Dieguito Union High School District in California, figured that out early during a recent project. The school was building a new black box theater and a 350-seat proscenium stage for its dance, music and drama departments. The facility also includes a dance room, dressing rooms, green-screen room and practice rooms for musicians. An adjustable wall can open to create an outdoor performance area.

For such a large space — and to support speakers, projectors, wireless microphones and headsets — a high-capacity network was key. Without enough bandwidth, all the new equipment would fail, says Chief Facilities Officer Mike Coy.

Accordingly, he says, “we built the technology foundation first.”

The network operations center uses an APC hot-aisle containment rack system, Cisco core switches and routers, and Cisco wireless equipment. The performing arts center is supported by Cisco wireless interior access points, exterior wireless APs for the outdoor performance area, and Cisco Catalyst 3850 and 9300 series switches.

Staff designed the network to be not only robust and secure but also scalable, Coy says, so it can easily accommodate digital video and other wireless equipment.

Deerfield District 109 also prioritized network capacity during its auditorium upgrade, Levinstein says. When modern AV technology meets fast, seamless connectivity, he says, that ups the game for every student.

“Giving the kids access to the equipment sets them up for their future, giving them the skills they are going to need when they get out in the real world,” he says.

Colin Lenton

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