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Case Study: Metropolitan Area Network Helps University City Schools Raise Test Scores

Public school districts nationwide increasingly rely on computer networks to enhance K-12 education. Rather than limit Internet or e-mail services to computer labs, districts today recognize the need for more pervasive and immediate access to networked academic programs to improve communications and student performance. With this in mind, The School District of University City, adjacent to St. Louis, Mo., offers an expanding array of classroom applications to its 4,200 students, and 300 staff and faculty members.

Recently, to streamline the delivery of these programs, the district transformed its WAN into a metropolitan area network (MAN) that delivers desktop applications up to 1,000 times faster than its former 384K connections. Replacing its Fast Ethernet switches, Cisco routers and unreliable frame-relay links with a Gigabit Ethernet MAN, University City schools now give each of its students swift access to educational software. As students work with these applications to enhance their critical thinking, we’re forecasting a 20% rise in test scores by the end of the 2003 school year.

“Our networking strategy emanated from our desire to help students score higher on district and national exams,” says Alan Portman, the district’s network specialist. “Previously, our WAN drove operational applications and e-mail to principals and administrators only. This limited access not only severely hampered parent-teacher communications, it also barred teachers from integrating critical academic software into their lesson plans.”

In 1999, University City voters passed a bond issue with $4 million for technology to help raise test scores by speeding access to Web-based educational resources and installing computers in every classroom. Over the next 18 months, we expanded our desktop systems from 300 to 1,600 and deployed a plethora of academic software. The subsequent increase in network activity, however, overtaxed our WAN, thwarting access to these programs. Ninth- through 12th-graders suffered the most as the WAN buckled before delivering applications to our high school building.

To add to our difficulties, our SonicWALL firewall failed, compromising our staff’s ability to consistently adhere to federal government mandates for Web site filtering. Most importantly, our students’ test scores indicated that our network couldn’t provide them with the advanced learning opportunities to facilitate their academic success. Our efforts to rectify this by deploying more computers only emphasized that we needed to completely overhaul our networking solution.

Robust Networking

Fortuitously, while planning our network upgrade, the community of University City enforced its agreement with the local cable company to run fiber-optic cables between all city buildings, including public and private schools. Using fiber optics meant we could replace our frame-relay links with switches that would exponentially increase our desktop connections and give us greater reliability. But, before choosing our new Gigabit Ethernet and firewall solutions, we consulted with other school districts, and our network design company and reseller, Net-Symmetry. After hearing reports about the performance, manageability and affordability of 3Com, we issued an RFP for the company’s equipment, which had provided our Fast Ethernet and Ethernet switches for several years.

In October 2001, University City schools, with the help of local systems integrator EduTec Resources Inc., deployed a 3Com Switch 4007 Gigabit Ethernet Switch in each of our 11 buildings. Today, the switches have fiber links to each other, as well as to 67 of 3Com’s Fast Ethernet edge switches, which deliver 10/100 Mbps connections to 1,600 desktops. The district also deployed the 3Com SuperStack 3 Firewall solution to protect its network from hacking attempts and easily control students’ Internet access.

Invaluable Investment

University City schools now use a 3Com MAN to boost students’ academic performance. The district’s middle school students participate in writing, social studies and science videoconferences. The 3Com solution also enables elementary students to sharpen their math skills using McGraw-Hill’s “Math Tool Chest,” and allows middle school students to advance their reading comprehension via AutoSkill International’s “Academy of Reading.” In addition, writing-lab instructors use numerous Web-based tutorials to guide research strategies and improve report writing capabilities of students. To bolster their creative writing skills, students also utilize Inspiration Software. District staff benefit from the high-speed access to the Novell’s GroupWise e-mail system, which they use to maintain contact with each other and parents. Furthermore, administrators and authorized staff of one of University City’s private schools plan to access the city’s occupancy database to quickly identify residents eligible for municipal services.

Clearly, our MAN is an invaluable investment in our children’s future. With the power we now have to enrich their educational experience, our students will graduate with the skills to excel in both higher education and the workforce. And that’s a return on an investment that any school district would be proud to achieve.

For more information on the The School District of University City, visit www.ucityschools.org.

Karol Walters, Ph.D.
Director of Information Systems
The School District of University City

Contact Information
3Com Corp.
Santa Clara, CA
(408) 326-5000
www.3com.com

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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