Jun 23 2020

Planning and Integrating Tech into New School Buildings

Planning for the tech needs of modern classrooms begins before breaking ground on new school construction.

As College Preparatory Middle School prepared to move from a church basement into its own brand-new building this year, administrators looked at every aspect of technology.

“We connected with some very knowledgeable IT people who knew how schools could benefit from technology, and how to plan for both present and future needs,” says Mitchell Miller, director of school operations at College Prep, located in the San Diego suburb of Spring Valley.

In 2018, U.S. school districts spent more than $98 billion on education construction projects, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and 55 percent of K–12 districts had construction projects on the books in 2019. New construction creates a unique opportunity for school districts to include robust IT capabilities from the ground up. Many will seize this chance to implement connectivity, security and classroom solutions designed to last for the long haul.

Planning for Future Bandwidth Needs in New Facilities

College Prep previously maxed out at 240 students. When its new facility opened this year, there were 400 students in fifth through eighth grades, all of whom would need internet access to participate in the school’s emerging one-to-one device schema. That meant IT needed to build in robust connectivity from the start.

“We knew we needed to be wireless, and not just for the classrooms. The IT room also needed to support the telephones, the fire system, the elevator,” Miller says. “We had to figure out how many access points we needed and where they should be located.”

In fact, connectivity often is the frontline consideration in new school construction these days as the demand for bandwidth continues to expand across the education landscape.

At Talladega County Schools in Alabama, every new school building comes with a sturdy internet backbone.

“We are always trying to think ahead, especially when considering items that will need to be in place for many years, such as physical wiring, network switches and routers, and servers,” says Brooke Morgan, the district’s coordinator of innovative learning.

“We install wireless access points in every classroom and other key areas to blanket our campuses with connectivity,” she says. “Our backbone is a 1-gigabit internet connection at all our schools, which gives plenty of bandwidth to keep up with the demand for online resources used by our staff and students.”

Christina Callaway (left) and Mitchell Miller (right) of College Preparatory Middle School in Spring Valley, Calif.

Co-directors Christina Callaway (left) and Mitchell Miller planned for current and future technology needs at the new College Preparatory Middle School building in Spring Valley, Calif.

Bandwidth is also a top concern for Texas’ Dallas Independent School District, where there are about half a dozen new school construction projects underway.

“It starts with a pretty robust hard-wired infrastructure, building fiber-optic connectivity vertically within the backbone of the building. Then we are putting most of our money into wireless,” says Jack Kelanic, CTO for Dallas ISD. “With so many wireless devices in play, you need a very robust and well-engineered wireless solution.”

In order to ensure that connectivity is available as needed to support specific academic activities, Kelanic says he focuses not just on the number of wireless access points but also on the details of their deployment to ensure full coverage.

“We pay close attention to engineering the locations of those access points, the tuning of the system, making sure we have signals turned up and down in the appropriate locations,” he says.

MORE ON EDTECH: Discover how districts are installing new tech into old schools.

Investing in Physical Security Tools for Schools

In addition to connectivity, new school construction gives districts a chance to up their security game at a time when safety is top of mind for parents, students and teachers alike.

At College Prep, this meant installing Dahua Technology night vision cameras throughout the new campus, along with interior and exterior speakers for emergency announcements. The new building has a full suite of modern locks and alarms and a new swipe-based ID credentialing system.

“We went from having nothing to having all the bells and whistles in regard to school security and safety,” Miller says. “This is something that families want, given the current state of affairs.”

In Dallas, Kelanic has likewise used new construction as an opportunity to pivot toward more robust security solutions. “We are adding more video cameras. We are looking at strobe beacon lights — emergency alert systems that can sound a siren or flash if an administrator has to put the school on lockdown,” he says.

The district also is implementing wireless emergency communications systems, as well as next-generation screening for weapons detection. “In today’s environment, safety and security have to be a top concern,” Kelanic says.

Keeping Budget in Mind for Tech Upgrades

While new construction offers the chance to build in the best from the start, these moments also present a distinct challenge to budget-constrained districts. With so many promising technologies available, it can be difficult sometimes to know which path to choose.

Administrators say they want to offer students and teachers access to the most advanced tools. At the same time, they need to consider both short-term cost and long-term usefulness when implementing any new technology.

“You really have to ask what this tool is going to do for the students when it gets in their hands,” says Ashley Blair, IT Operations Manager at Tennessee’s Jackson-Madison County School District, where a new K–12 building is under construction.

LEARN MORE: Find out how K–12 schools can measure ed tech ROI. 

The district has been evaluating different learning management systems: Administrators are eager to acquire enhanced functionality while also ensuring the system has room to accommodate future needs.

“Choosing an LMS, or potentially having to choose multiple LMSs if they turn out to lack the flexibility — that represents a significant investment,” Blair says. “We could move a lot faster, but we want to be careful to choose the right components.”

The rapidly changing nature of educational technology can make it difficult for IT teams as they seek to build out the instructional components of a new building.

“There is so much happening in terms of instruction right now,” Kelanic says. “We decide on something and a teacher comes back telling us the students are doing something else now. Then we will have to go back and make adjustments. We may need to improve the network or provide a higher-end computer device if the kids are using technology at a very high level.”

$98 billion

U.S. school district spending on education construction projects in 2018

Source: blog.plangrid.com, “Back to School: State of Education Construction in 2019,” Aug. 27, 2019

In order to stock new buildings with appropriate instructional technology, it’s important to have a clear-eyed vision of IT’s place in the overarching K–12 endeavor.

“Technology’s role is to serve as a support within the overall instructional plan,” Morgan says. “It should be used to deepen students’ understanding of content.”

With this in mind, IT leaders, teachers and district leadership all need to work in close consultation with one another as decisions are made about instructional tools within new construction. At College Prep, that meant ditching the old computers in favor of one-to-one Chromebooks. This in turn freed administrators to scrap a planned computer lab and to repurpose that room as a makerspace, with videography equipment and a 3D printer.

“We looked at everything we wanted to purchase and asked will it support our main focus? Will it support our academic purpose?” Miller says. “We asked the staff for feedback about what they would really need, and then of course we looked at the budget.”

In Dallas, Kelanic likewise puts teacher needs at the top of his list when evaluating his technology investments. While the educators may not ask about bandwidth constraints and the mapping of Wi-Fi access points, for example, it’s his job to align those nuts-and-bolts IT decisions with the pedagogical need.

“We take our cues from the educators,” he says. “They aren’t focused on the infrastructure, they don’t care about the fiber specs — but they do care about having good performance on the network, having a lot of students able to stream at one time. It’s our job to make that happen for them.”

Photography by John Davis