Flexible Network Infrastructure Helps Meet District’s Changing Needs

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IP telephony system improves student safety and staffproductivity of northern Virginia district.

Student safety is a top priority forschool administrators, now morethan ever. In an emergency,schools must be able to communicate withstudents, parents, and local government,quickly and reliably. But ensuring studentsafety and keeping the lines of communicationopen can be more problematic inrural school districts, where even cellphone service can be spotty. To meet thesegrowing challenges, a school district innorthern Virginia is upgrading itsnetwork infrastructure to support innovativenew telephony applications.

Headquartered in Winchester, VA,Frederick County Public Schools servesmore than 11,700 students. Its 18campuses provide K-12 education andinclude two specialized learning centers.However, the district’s steady expansionover several years had resulted in a jumbleof phone systems. By 2001, the districtsupported 11 different private branchexchange (PBX) systems from fivedifferent vendors—and expensive annualmaintenance contracts for most of them.

Two events that compromised thesafety of students convinced administratorsthat it was time to reassess thedistrict’s communications technology. Onthe morning of a severe snowstorm, buseshad already delivered some students toschool, with many others in transit, whenthe administration cancelled classes forthe day. As parents called schools to verifythe closures and locate their children, thecalls overwhelmed the phone systems andmost callers received a busy signal. Evenworse, administrators at the district’scentral office were unable to reach many ofthe schools by phone. The phone systemwas simply not dependable under verydemanding conditions.

The second event was a security auditreport, which found that three schools didnot have two-way communications fromthe classrooms to the school office. Thedistrict developed a proposal to add a two wayPA system to the buildings, and fundswere allocated. However, after reviewingthe plan, the IT department determinedthat a better approach would be to migratethe sites to an Internet Protocol (IP)telephony system. Because the networkwould carry voice and data traffic, thesystem would provide not only PAfeatures, but could grow to serve as anintelligent communications foundationfor the entire district. Plus, migratingmultiple school phone systems to a singleconverged network would greatly simplifynetwork management tasks and makevoice communications more reliable andeasier to control.

An Intelligent New Phone System

After evaluating proposals from fourvendors, Frederick County selected AACInc. (www.aac.com), a Cisco Systems IPTelephony Specialized Services Partnerand reseller based in Vienna, VA. AAC wasunique in its ability to provide not onlynetwork equipment, but specializedtelephony applications that handle attendance,emergency alerts, and administrativetasks. The district was already usingCisco (www.cisco.com) equipment in itsexisting data network, so additional ITstaff training would be minimized.

As planning began, a key concern wasensuring that the district’s network hadthe capacity and intelligence to supportboth voice and data. By upgrading theCisco Catalyst switches at the districtoffice to support the advanced quality ofservice (QoS) that voice service requires,the district’s Cisco network was able tohandle the expected voice traffic. AnotherCisco Catalyst switch at the central officeprovides connectivity to the district’s widearea network (WAN), so sites can communicatewith one another using GigabitEthernet over fiber.

AAC installed servers running CiscoCallManager software to perform callhandling and offer support for ExtensibleMarkup Language (XML) telephonyapplications and messaging. In each classroom,Cisco IP phones feature LCDdisplay screens that can support XMLapplications. An integrated hands-freespeakerphone lets the phones function asa two-way PA system for public safety andannouncements. PA announcements canbe made to any location on the networkequipped with an IP phone—even fromone building to another. AAC workedclosely with the district to create a call planthat would accommodate additional locationsin the future.

After installing and configuring the IPtelephony system, AAC augmented thesystem with its own XML-basedPhoneTop K-12 application suite. Thesuite’s Attendance Manager module letsteachers take attendance using the phone,and allows administrators to monitor andmodify attendance information. In thepast, teachers had recorded absences oncards, which were manually collected andreturned to the administration building.A school secretary would then spend asmuch as two hours cross-checking theabsent-student cards with the list ofparents who had called in to report anabsence, and then would enter the informationinto a database. Finally, an automatedsystem would call the homes ofunexcused absent students.

Under the new system, each teacherlogs onto a password-protected screen onhis phone’s LCD screen, records absences,then submits a full attendance reportdirectly to the school’s administrativeoffice. Within minutes, administrativestaff know exactly which absences areunexcused, so phone calls can be madehome hours earlier than before. The attendanceprogram also can inform teachersof preapproved absences, birthdays, andother information.

Frederick County also is using its IPtelephony system to support voice mail,making teachers more accessible to parentsand administrators. Cisco Unity softwareprovides a voice mailbox for each teacherwhere he or she can access messagesdirectly from the classroom,anytime during the day.

As part of the project,the district installed CiscoCatalyst switches withPower over Ethernet (P'E)technology in its classrooms.This feature, whichdelivers electrical power toIP devices from the networkswitch, enables the districtto install phones whereverthey are needed, withoutrequiring a separate poweroutlet, and is especiallyuseful in older buildingswith limited power. What’smore, since many switcheson the campus networks are protected byan uninterruptible power supply, P'Eallows the district to continue to operatephones, even if a building loses power.

The new IP telephony system isimproving public safety for the localcommunity as well as the school population.Frederick County is about an hourfrom Washington, DC, and in the event of anational emergency, its schools would bedesignated as shelters. Because schools areconnected to the county WAN, networkadministrators were able to install two IPphones at local government offices. If asituation caused traditional phone lines tobe tied up, county and school officialswould still be able to communicate via theIP network.

Empowering School Administrators

After AAC upgraded three of the district’ssites to IP telephony, administrators atFrederick County felt confident enough tohandle new deployments on their own.Since then, the district has been steadilyreplacing all of its PBX systems, and had600 phones in 10 locations by the end of2004. Because the phones are just anextension of its network, the district nolonger has to rely on outside contractorsand service agreements to change orexpand its voice system. About 30 percentof two IT staff members’ time is dedicatedto keeping the IP phone system runningsmoothly.

The new network also is saving moneyand freeing up school administrators tofocus on other tasks. In addition to thedramatic labor savings in daily attendanceprocedures, the district benefits frommore accurate records, increased security,and improved communications betweenparents and teachers.

The new IP telephony system letsschools use their phones more flexibly aswell. Instead of requiring a static numberof dedicated phone lines for each school,the network lets multiple campuses sharephone lines over the network, whichreduces overall phone charges.

In addition, before each deployment,the Frederick County IT staff carefullychecks the site’s telephone system, tobring any specialized features onto thenew system. Equipping new buildingswith IP telephony is easier because phonescan simply be added to the districtnetwork.

A Process of Continual Improvement

The Frederick County district is steadilymoving forward with its IP telephonyinitiative. Its goal is to deploy the system inall of its 22 buildings within three years,for a total of 1,300 phones.

With a sophisticated multiservicenetwork in place, the district can alsoaccommodate new applications toenhance public safety and learning. Plansare underway to install IP-based securitycameras that can provide live video feedsback to administrativeoffices or the district headquarters.Connected to aP'E switch, the cameraswill be much less costlythan dedicated videosystems, as well as easier tomanage and maintain.Students at every schoolcan access the Internetover the high-speednetwork, and the districtuses a growing variety ofinstructional applicationsand courseware.

New AAC PhoneTopapplications are underconsideration, too. Atelephony-based hall pass application willeliminate the need for handwritten hallpasses. And AAC’s AMBER Alerts applicationwill enable the district to send missingchild information, as well as NationalWeather Service alerts, over the IP phones.The district is also working with AAC todevelop an XML-based time clock applicationthat would enable faculty to checkin from an IP phone in the classroom,rather than manually signing in at aschool’s administrative office.

The versatility and intelligence of itsnew network infrastructure helps ensurethat the district can continue to tailor itsnetwork to meet changing needs ofstudents, administrators, and the localcommunity.

Robert Yost is the director of InformationTechnology for the Frederick CountyPublic Schools system, headquartered inWinchester, VA.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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