MorgueFile - jdurham
Roanoke County public schools cruise down the 'EducationSuperHighway'
The technology director at Roanoke County Public Schools in Virginia can recall a time about 16 years ago when their system did not have the dark fiber network and other technology that is in place today.
"When it first came along years ago, it seemed overwhelming, that it was going to be so much work," Jeff Terry told Virginia Business Daily. "But fast forward to now, 16 years later, I don't think any of us could see a day that we could just pull the laptops away from the students without it being so devastating to the teachers, because they're invested heavily into each day being (that is) how they're going to instruct their students. A lot of that is based on technology."
That progress has come about in large part thanks to a nationwide program and push for technology in public schools, and ever-progressing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines.
"We're just giving our students and our teachers the tools to make the technology program more successful here in the district," Terry said.
Giving students and staff the right network with the right bandwidth, the right technology and the right hardware has been key to the district's successful technology program, he said.
"It's a moving target," he said. "You upgrade; you do one thing; then you do something else to match it."
Terry, who joined Roanoke County Public Schools in 1994 as a computer technology specialist, was named by the county's school board as the district’s first chief information officer, charged with leading its technology department, in 2014.
Roanoke County Public Schools is just one of many school systems in the U.S. that has benefited from programs such as those provided by EducationSuperHighway, a U.S.-based nonprofit that supports research, advocacy and consultation with the goal of getting high-speed internet access into the nation's public schools.
EducationSuperHighway is also a strong proponent of the FCC's 1 MBPS program, which pushes school systems to provide at least 1 megabyte per second (MBPS) for each student in a district to an external internet connection via an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The program also pushes for at least 10 MBPS per student on wide-area network connections.
Building on a nationwide effort by education officials to get internet access and networks into public schools through programs such as EducationSuperHighway, governors from almost every state have since 2014 committed to the FCC's short-term connectivity goal of 100K per second per student, according to EducationSuperHighway data.
That commitment motivated school leaders, service providers and federal policymakers to push for those goals, the focus of which more recently has shifted to providing schools with the bandwidth to use technology every day. At present, 28 percent of the nation's school districts meet the 1 MBPS goal.
The push for technology in Roanoke County Public Schools has not always been easy, but support has always been there, Terry said.
"We are very fortunate to have had (the) support from our school board and our superintendent that we have had for our technology program," he said. "They made technology a priority years ago."
With that support behind them, it has been up to the school district's technology experts to implement that priority. One way to do that has been through the district's "one-to-one" program, which provides one laptop for every student.
"We have been a longstanding district in the one-to-one program," Terry said. "We're in our 16th year of one-to-one laptops for our students. We're grades six through 12 for the one-to-one program."
Those laptops are loaded with Windows 10 "across the board," and all staff members also receive laptops in the district of about 14,000 students and about 2,000 employees. The district has about 12,000 network devices, most of them dedicated to the one-to-one program, Terry said.
"Many school districts struggle with this, and we struggled at the very beginning as well," he said. "Bandwidth was always the No. 1 piece of that — how much can you give us? — because the more that program is in place, the more bandwidth is needed."
It began with the district's traditional telephone lines, from which those 56K lines were transitioned to T1 lines and fiber was pulled to every school.
"That's one of the things we're the most lucky to have," Terry said. "The area that we're in has the vendors who can pull fiber to every building. That's half the battle, getting the fiber there."
For last several years, every school has had a 1G fiber connection, and equipment has been standardized with a wireless connection now available in every Roanoke County Public School classroom.
"And we had a vendor who was able to provide us with dark fiber to every school," Terry said. "That really changed the game for us. That probably is the reason that we have grown the way we have over the past couple of years, the fact that we now control our own speed on our wide-area network."
It also means the end of complaints about latency and slow connections, Terry said.
In addition to cabling, wiring and wireless, hardware devices at Roanoke County Public Schools have been updated, including the addition of network devices that can handled 10G of traffic.
The district has benefited from the FCC service-fund program E-Rate, as well, which provides discounts for technology access and equipment for eligible schools and libraries.
Roanoke County Public Schools has been able to reduce its overall cost by $60,000 a year following the district's dark fiber deployment, Terry said. The overall technology program allowed the district to centralize many of its programs, and it also has spawned deployment of similar technology into the wider community.
"That's all about the right things falling at the right time," Terry said.
Roanoke County Public Schools' overall budget for internet and WAN facilities is about $770,000 each year, Terry said.
"We get about 50 percent reimbursement of that from E-Rate," he said. "Half off of that fancy network is a pretty nice thing."
Those funds go back into the district's technology program to pay for programs such as the one-to-one program.
The district also is moving forward, meeting FCC expectations that school districts to provide 1G of bandwidth per student in the next few years.
"If we're not at a gig(abyte) already, we're super-duper close to it," Terry said. "The next phase will be upgrading the 10G internet connection to a 25G."
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