Surviving a Communications Network Overhaul

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A Pennsylvania school district implements a system to provide anytime, anywhere communications for its 4,700 students and 600 staff members.

School districts across the countryare embarking on long-term plansto implement technology as part ofthe next generation of learning. One of thecatalysts for these initiatives has been theNo Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), whichprovides federal funding for such technologyinvestments.

The School District of CheltenhamTownship, located in Elkins Park, PA, justnorth of Philadelphia, has been for sometime an example of an institution that setshigh standards for itself in technology innovation:In the 1980s, we were recognizedwith a “what’s right with education” nodfrom the US Department of Education.Still, we wanted to improve our communicationstools to facilitate greater daily operationalefficiencies to all staff and faculty.

As with any major technology initiative,there were significant challenges. Weneeded to address slow data throughput,the failure of our communications networkto support business operations across separatephone systems, and the importance ofconsolidating our network systems. We alsounderestimated what was required toenhance the educational environment andsecurity for the school district’s 4,700students and 600 staff members.

“With the system we now have in place, we have achievedgreater results to date than were projected for our day-to-daybusiness and operations.”

Prior to launching the communicationsnetwork overhaul, we established severalgoals to reduce costs and increase efficiencies:We identified the need to implementdistrict-wide communications capabilities,eliminate our old Centrex system, andincrease the performance of datathroughput for teachers. We were also intenton installing more useful telecommunicationsfeatures such as security for textmessaging, paging, and conferencing, as wellas incorporating Enhanced 911 (E911), inorder to be better prepared to handleemergencies.

Limitations. However, we also discoveredthat our school district’s aggressivetechnology-and-infrastructure plan hadlimitations. There were several factors thatwe had not considered, but needed to takeinto account when developing the newcommunications infrastructure. Amongthe considerations were teacher and staffmemberreports, monitoring progress andattendance, emergency communications,systems controls, and security monitoring.

The Solution

The district soon discovered multiple areasof need to be met in order to achieve thedesired communication and securityresults. The in-place frame relay would notsupport the necessary Quality of Service(QoS) required for voice communications.Therefore, we upgraded to the TransparentLAN Service (Fiber TLS) under the oldfederal Chapter 30 program to give educationalinstitutions access to the latest technologies.When this stage was complete, wefound that we could easily consolidatephone lines onto Verizon’s Primary RateInterface (PRI), bringing 24 trunks perPRI. Upon installation of the PRI, thedistrict added direct inward dialed (DID)extensions for use with the E911 protocol.

The district defined specific operationalfeatures for this developing system. We hadintegrated overhead paging and fail-safeanalog lines added for additional security.The district would have robust communicationsavailable literally under almost anyforeseeable situation.

Today, the CheltenhamTownship schooldistrict has a corporatestylecommunicationsnetwork, operatingwith super-fastInternet connections.

To achieve our goals, agroup of Cheltenhamadministrators workedwith Alcatel (www.alcatel.com) and Verizon(www.verizon.com) toassess the functionalityand ROI of a new communicationssystem. We choseAlcatel because thecompany developed aunique solution in line with Cheltenham’smultiple goals. In fact, Cheltenham was thefirst school district to implement Alcatel’sK-12 district alert application. The newcommunications system includes:

  • Inter-building communications solutions.An IP telephony solution thatallows school administrators and teachingstaff to reach each other at any time.
  • Security applications. Alcatel’s K-12education district alert applicationallows Cheltenham to send each classroomin the district instant notificationsregarding weather, news, events, orspecific security concerns.

Alcatel

A Technology Infusion

We initially implemented a switchoverfrom analog to IP telephony in August2004. Phase I consisted of the administrationbuilding and Glenside ElementarySchool, which helped us develop a comprehensivemodel for all other buildings.Advanced development continued forseveral months following the transition.

To date, we have implemented mostmajor aspects of the VoIP telephonysystems: personal wireless telephones(PWT) usable throughout VoIP-equippedbuildings and roaming users; Alcatel 4980Softphones with enhanced message popupcapabilities; integrated overhead pagingaccessible from within or outside of thedistrict using dialed-in system access(DISA); bridge conferences for up to 29members; voicemail for all users; voicebroadcast service (VBS) to all phones, with64 different messages that use up to 256different scenarios (accessible fromanywhere); and more than 500 featuresbuilt into the 4,035 telephones used in theadministration building.

Phase II is planned forthis summer, when weexpect to equip grades 5and 6, the middle school,and our high school.After lessons learnedthrough Phase I, weexpect the second phaseof implementation to beconsiderably shorter.This type of project wasnew for Alcatel, Verizon,and the school district, which made it alearning experience for allinvolved. Whileewe are only through the second part of thesix-phase project, it has been a learningprocess for the school district and the technicians,due, in part, to not knowing what toexpect in terms of speed and execution.

Today, the school district has a corporate-style communications network, operatingwith super-fast Internet connectionsthat aid student research and provide onlinedistance learning capabilities. Alcatel andVerizon’s Enterprise Solutions Group(ESG) have built a converged IP telephonynetwork that will carry voice, data, andeventually video, over one platform.Administrators, teachers, and studentsare already discovering the benefits of thenew system, which include:

  • Anytime, anywhere communication.The communications server providesconnections between school administratorsand teaching staff—in the classroomor on the playing field—viadesktop computers, in-classroomphones, or wireless devices.
  • Instant notifications and security alerts.The security application broadcastsmessages to alert administrators andteaching staff via a phone voicemailinbox or computer pop-up screen.
  • K-12-specific education applications.Alcatel’s education applications weredeveloped specifically for K-12 andallow school districts to share knowledgeand information as well as educationalresources. Virtual classroomsconnect students and teachers globally,and video streaming enables teachers todisplay clips from a central database.

Our school district looks to expandthese new technological capabilities in thefuture. Wee have plans to replace old datagear with Alcatel switches, and connecthomebound students with actual classroomsessions through visual conferencingand distance learning.

With the system we now have in place,we have achieved greater results to datethan were projected for our day-to-daybusiness and operations. The technologyhas also enabled more “open”communicationsand tools to make us more productive,efficient, and successful; most importantly,it has made the children entrusted toour care more safe.

Christopher W. McGinley is superintendentof the School District of Cheltenham Townshipin Pennsylvania.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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