Philip Brody, Clark County’s CTO, is the architect of the district’s network. His long-range planning has allowed the network to deliver stability and services to a school system that adds about 10 new schools a year.

Oct 30 2007

Taming the Wild West

In 10 years, Clark County transformed its chaotic network into one of K–12's most robust backbones.

In 10 years, Clark County transformed its chaotic network into one of K–12’s most robust backbones.

Every week, Rachel Kaplan, a math teacher at Molasky Junior High School in Las Vegas, shows her students two-minute videos that offer real-world applications of difficult math concepts. She uses the district’s wide area network to access the videos, which sends them to a PC in her classroom. From there, an LCD projector magnifies the images on a large screen.

“The videos answer the most common student question: ‘Why do I need to learn this?’ ” says Kaplan, adding that because she is new to Clark County School District, which includes the city of Las Vegas, the WAN has also helped her adjust to her new employer. “The districtwide e-mail system was very beneficial for networking and helping me learn about the district’s policies and procedures.”

Kaplan is just one example of how the district’s 33,000 employees use its WAN to enhance student learning. While the district has experienced rapid growth — more than 175 new schools have been built since 1991 — its WAN has also evolved during the past decade. It now connects 327 schools spread over 8,000 square miles, offers 600 times more bandwidth and supports numerous applications such as a centralized library system, videoconferencing and video broadcast with 47 channels of content streamed to the schools. Employees rely on the WAN, trust it and can’t imagine performing their jobs without it.

Unifying the Network

New York and Los Angeles have lost at least 4 percent of their students since 2001. Only two of the six largest school districts in the nation, Miami-Dade and Clark County, are adding students each year.

Not long ago, the district’s technology program was in chaos. “Back in the 1990s, there were no standards,” recalls Philip Brody, chief technology officer for the school district. “It was everybody for themselves. It was crazy — it was the Wild West.” Connectivity was a huge problem. Some schools tried T1 lines, others used dial-up, while a handful had no connection to the Internet at all. But the situation wasn’t all gloomy. In 1998, the city’s voters passed a 10-year, $3.8 billion bond issue for building new schools and wiring classrooms.

The district and an engineering firm designed a Gigabit Ethernet network, a rarity in 2000. To play it smart, the technology department rolled it out to only seven schools as a demonstration project.

“We needed something to show the school board what the WAN could do,” Brody says, adding that the design process took two years and involved instructional staff, which was crucial to its long-term success. “We loaded these schools up with a lot of technology like videoconferencing over IP. Then we tested the technology, our assumptions and processes.”

When the district returned to the school board for more technology money, Brody recalls, one board member expressed his appreciation for not rushing the project. Another requested testimonials from each of the schools in the demonstration project. But Brody was already at the head of the class. His department came prepared with videotaped comments from each of the school principals.

Saving Money With VoIP

After 18 months, he says, the project revealed the WAN’s strengths and stability but also showed the flaws behind IP video, which was still in its infancy. But Voice over Internet Protocol was a different story. Brody and his staff installed digital phones in every classroom, using each building’s existing wiring, then maximized telephone circuits through the PBX, which transformed standard signals into IP signals. That slashed the monthly cost of each phone to access the public network from roughly $15 to $2, adds Randy Thomas, director of networking services at the district.

After the pilot was completed, the technology department’s telecommunication services unit connected approximately 280 schools to the WAN within 18 months, Thomas says, adding that the WAN’s design was simple yet elegant and easy to support with a small staff. The local cable company installed fiber optics at the same rate, working a day or two ahead of the technology department’s schedule. The process mimicked an assembly line.

“What we did to make my job easier was to choose a single vendor [SAIC] for the WAN and two different models of routers from the same company [Foundry Networks] so we wouldn’t have interoperability issues,” Thomas says, explaining that the tiered network uses a big router at high congestion points and a small router at low traffic points.

That approach offered a hidden bonus: It enabled staff to picture the WAN as a single entity instead of as 500 different devices.

Although each phase of the project required a different vendor, only three companies besides SAIC were used. The district purchased Gig WAN routers from Foundry Networks, awarded its VoIP system to Alcatel-Lucent and relied on CDW•G for parts and supplies, such as patch cables, for PC and network repair.

VideoConferencing Is Next

The district didn’t sit still for long. Its next project was the deployment of a centralized library system across its WAN. Because the system is on a single server instead of dozens or even hundreds of servers, upgrades take one weekend to complete instead of one year.

But this year is being dubbed its video year. The district also supports a virtual high school and video-on-demand system that contains 80,000 learning objects indexed to the state’s educational curriculum. Likewise, new schools are being built without cable or TV antennas because their channel lineup is sent from the WAN to classroom PCs, saving the district between $100,000 and $250,000 — depending upon building size — in construction costs for every new school.

Meanwhile, videoconferencing hardware is being rolled out. So far, Thomas says, 35 videoconferencing units have been allocated to schools. Although the project is still in the proof-of-concept mode, Thomas says the district’s goal is to equip every school with videoconferencing units in the next several years so educators won’t have to travel to meetings and can take advantage of professional development opportunities.

“Over the last several years, the speed of our network’s reliability and stability has enhanced how we communicate and deliver information,” says Jhone Ebert, assistant superintendent for the curriculum and professional development. “Our WAN is bandwidth intense and stable. It has become as ubiquitous with our employees as the telephone.”

Is All Education Local?

While education is often a top factor when families are looking to move, the issue seems to be sliding further down the national scale as next year’s presidential campaign draws closer.

Issues such as the war in Iraq, terrorism, the environment and health care have so far dominated discussion among presidential candidates of both parties, but two of the biggest education benefactors in the country — Bill Gates and Eli Broad — are joining forces to try to elevate the discussion of education for next year’s race.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation recently launched a Strong American Schools public awareness campaign. “The American dream is slipping away, and unless our leaders dramatically improve our public schools, our standard of living, our economy and our very democracy will be threatened,” said Eli Broad at the start of this initiative. In their own ways, both groups have tried to change the U.S. education system to better serve students in the 21st century. The Broad Foundation focuses on improving urban districts, while the Gates Foundation has spent significant money creating small schools and other education projects.

The campaign, directed by former Los Angeles School District Superintendent Roy Romer, calls for candidates to address the following three issues:

  • Creating strong education standards throughout the country;
  • Putting effective teachers in every classroom;
  • Expanding the time and support for learning for all students.