Meeting the Technology Challenge Economically

Many small school districts feelthat they are being left behind in the race to integrate information technologyinto the classroom. They often lack the money, in-house expertise, facilitiesand support that are available to large districts. However, as shown by theexperience of the Louisa County Schools, this d'esn’t have to be the case.Many small school districts feelthat they are being left behind in the race to integrate information technologyinto the classroom. They often lack the money, in-house expertise, facilitiesand support that are available to large districts. However, as shown by theexperience of the Louisa County Schools, this d'esn’t have to be the case.

Louisa County has a population of 22,000 and is located inVirginia, 80 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. It has five schools, two ofwhich are located in close proximity to the Administration Building and thePublic Library. The school district serves 4,000 students and has an annual ITbudget of about $200,000.

Despite the district’s size, the county has installed over1,700 computers in the schools and is conducting innovative programs tointegrate the computers into the classroom. All schools are cabled with afiber-optic backbone and twisted pair in every classroom. Temporary classroomsare connected to the main buildings by wireless access points. TheAdministration Building and adjacent schools are connected with fiber-opticcable and T3 lines; the three distant schools are connected with T1 lines. Thecounty library will be added to the network in the near future. Every schoolhas Internet access.

How have the Louisa County Schools accomplished this whenother small counties are struggling to install basic computer labs? Accordingto Bruno Sestito, the Louisa County Schools’ IT Director, there are four keysto success.

1. GetSupport: Sestito credits a major part of his success to the supportof the School Board and the Superintendent, Dr. David Melton. “Having them toback me 100% allows me to try out new ideas.” Examples of his ideas areproviding classes on Web page development to selected teachers; providing themwith computers, 17” monitors, and scanners; giving teachers an opportunity tobuy computers for home use at discounted contract prices; and allowing studentswithout computers at home to borrow them from the district.

2. TakeAdvantage of Grants: The LCS annual IT budget is approximately $200,000.Sestito has been able to supplement that by almost one-half million dollarsthrough various grants. He qualifies for60-70% of E-rate grants. He also notes that too many school systems fail tomaster the art of applying for grants, thereby depriving themselves ofmoney that is available to them.

3. BuySmart: When funding is tight, the importance of getting the bestvalue out of every purchase is primary. Several factors come into play whendeciding what hardware, software, and services to buy.

 

· Plan:Know where you are going in the long run before you start buying for the shortterm. It may be smart to buy more capability than you need at present to avoidreplacing equipment two years from now. Also, research the direction technologyis taking, so that you won’t invest in an infrastructure that will soon beobsolete.

 

· Control the Salesman: Researchthe market and know exactly what you need before you buy. “Let’s face it,” saysSestito, “salesmen work on commissions and they want to maximize the amount ofthe sale. If you ask them for recommendations, they will probably try to sellyou an expensive item or high-margin option that exceeds your needs.”

 

· Ignore the Advertising: Manufacturers of brand nameproducts spend a lot of money promoting the name. This raises the cost to thebuyer without adding any value. Sestito followed his own advice in purchasingover 700 TradeWIN computers from WIN Laboratories, Ltd. “These computers areinexpensive, reliable, easily maintained, and upgradeable,” states Sestito. “Ifigure I stretched my budget at least 30% by avoiding name brand or GartnerGroup tiered systems.”

4. InvolveOthers: Sestito firmly believes that all facets of the school systemmust work together to implement a successful IT program. These includeteachers, administrators, IT personnel, maintenance staff, and students. Tothis end, he provides special IT training classes, briefs staff on ITdevelopments and their implications, supports classroom teachers with technicalsupport and training, and recommends ways to take advantage of IT capabilities.His five-member staff not only manages the network and maintains the equipment,but also assists teachers in providing classroom instruction. In addition, theyprovide training year-round so that the teachers can meet Virginia’s technologycompetence standards.

Each elementary school classroom has two to six computersconnected to a single hub, the maximum that Sestito recommends for a 10/100Ethernet system. In some classrooms, the teacher’s computer is connected to a22” monitor mounted on the ceiling so that every student can observe how thesoftware is used. The schools also have conventional computer laboratories with25 computers and a network printer.

Sestito has recently increased the availability of computersfor classroom instruction by building a portable lab that uses wirelesstechnology. This lab consists of a cart containing an Aironet wireless LANaccess point and 11 notebook computers, each equipped with a wireless PCMCIAnetwork card. The access point can be connected to the school network in anyclassroom, providing a wireless network environment for the students in thatroom. A printer is also included on the cart.

“Wireless technology is the next wave,” says Sestito. Inaddition to the portable lab, he is using wireless tools to provide networkaccess for students housed in temporary facilities on school grounds.“Technology isn’t going to wait for you,” he adds. “You have to keep working orit will run away from you. Keeping up is the challenge.” It is a challenge thatLouisa County Schools are meeting.

 

 

Contact Information

WIN Labs

Manassas, VA (800)334-8102

www.win-labs.com

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.

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