Networking | Spotlight

Stepping Up to High-Speed Broadband

Statewide system allows North Carolina charter school to rev up its campus connectivity

Last year, Celest O'Brien was faced with an IT dilemma. She knew that the student body was growing at Monroe, NC-based Union Academy and that an increasing number of teachers, staff, and students needed reliable connectivity while on campus. As IT director for the charter school, O'Brien also knew that the institution's current setup wasn't going to cut it.

"Eight years ago we had 450 students and Internet access through our local phone company," recalled O'Brien. "We had 40 computers, and plenty of Internet access to go around."

The number of students and computers on Union Academy's campus--and in its distance-learning program--has grown significantly since then. Today, the school has over 1,200 students and 140 staff members using 600 computers on campus. To accommodate that growth, Union Academy struck a deal a few years ago with Time Warner Cable, which hooked the school up with business-class broadband service.

Unfortunately, many Monroe residents were using the same line and slowing the broadband down for students, both on and off campus. "We have a pretty [popular] distance learning program here," O'Brien said, "and our students couldn't even get their work done because the connection was so poor."

Back at the drawing board, O'Brien learned about the North Carolina School Connectivity Initiative (SCI), which would provide all of the state's K-12 public schools with high-speed connectivity via the North Carolina Research and Education Network (NCREN).

Schools began connecting to the network in 2009. Charter schools weren't originally included in the initiative, according to O'Brien, but were later considered for the program (once the cap was raised for the number of schools that could hook into the network).

Joe Freddoso, president and CEO at MCNC, a non-profit organization that provides the networking technology, systems, and support for the statewide program, said once the state raised the cap on how many schools would be allowed to use the network, individual charter schools were addressed on a case-by-case basis.

Budgetary issues--such as, how much could the school afford to pay for connectivity, outside of the state's reimbursement level--were discussed, and in many cases, NCREN made more sense.

Currently, 19 North Carolina charter schools are receiving high-speed connectivity and services through the NCREN. Those schools can either sign up for a complete, turnkey connection or continue being responsible for part of the connection arrangements themselves.

Union Academy selected the first option, based on the poor quality of its existing Internet service. "We were one of the first charter schools to jump on the opportunity," stated O'Brien. The school tapped into the statewide network last summer, and has been using it with positive results ever since.

"It fixed our Internet problem and cleared up the major bottlenecks that we were dealing with," said O'Brien. "Without it, we wouldn't be able to offer our students the resources they need to excel, and to be challenged academically."

O'Brien said the system has allowed teachers to integrate technology into their lesson plans in new ways, and without having to worry about graphics-laden pages taking hours to download. The school's distance learning program has grown as a result of the new system, with roughly 25 percent of all high school students participating in online education.

"Most of our high school graduates have taken at least one distance learning class--something that wouldn't be possible with our previous bandwidth," said O'Brien. "They've been able to work above and beyond state standards using videoconferencing equipment and other tools that weren't previously within our grasp."

O'Brien said implementing wireless at the school's elementary campus is the next task on her IT agenda. Also on her mind these days is a statewide cloud computing initiative that will find schools pooling their resources for hosted software applications.

"They're supposed to be offering schools a cheaper alternative for Microsoft products, and other applications," remarked O'Brien, who sees the opportunity to place Union Academy's firewall in the cloud, and/or utilize the consortium's content filtering services, as particularly valuable propositions. "We're looking pretty carefully at this development, and how it can benefit our school and our students."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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