Snowflake USD Discovers a Cost-Effective Way to Deliver Technology to All Students


The promise of technology as a resource for K-12 education has remained mostly unfulfilled. Barriers such as the total cost of ownership of information technology systems, the initial infrastructure investment required to get systems up and running, as well as the ongoing lack of financial and human resources have all contributed to slowing the implementation of technology in K-12 education. These concerns are magnified in smaller or rural schools.

In 1999, Snowflake Unified School District #5, a rural district of 2,500 students in Snowflake, Ariz., embarked on an innovative and ambitious technology plan that resulted in delivering a 2-1 student-to-computer ratio at the K-6 level, and a 4-1 ratio at the 7-12 grade level. Eventually, the student-to-computer ratio will be 2-to-1 districtwide. This innovative plan utilized a technology that is rapidly growing in popularity in the education market: server-centric computing. Through the use of server-centric computing, the district ultimately realized cost savings in excess of $500,000.

The Server-Centric Computing Solution

The idea behind server-centric computing is simple: centralize computing power, storage, applications and data on servers, as well as provide users with a simple desktop device called a thin client that is easy to install and requires no hands-on maintenance. The thin clients connect to the server - which runs Microsoft Terminal Services and Citrix MetaFrame software - through the network to run applications, access files, as well as print and perform services available to traditional computers.

The initial phase of the technology plan focused on building a fiber-optic network backbone, utilizing a partnership approach with local governments. The next phase resulted in the expansion of the backbone infrastructure to include terminal servers and implement thin-client technology and LCD displays. The use of terminal servers, starting in 1999, and purchase of Wyse Winterm thin clients from Wyse Technology in 2001 have resulted in a change of philosophy for technology purchases. The district was no longer trying to keep up with the PC replacement cycle and scrambling to maintain their devices; it was now heading off inevitable problems before they started.

"We were learning that PCs were a consistent distraction for teachers, with classes often interrupted when PCs were damaged or improperly used by students or simply locked up," says Gary Sims, director of information technology for the district. "Now our teachers can concentrate on teaching because they don't have to worry about problems with their thin clients."

This new emphasis involves the placement of Wyse Winterm terminals in the classrooms instead of building computer labs. Each teacher now has a Wyse thin client on his or her desk and students share terminals to accomplish daily tasks, including using educational software programs from Renaissance Learning and PLATO Learning.

Fulfilling Project Goals

Snowflake's primary purpose in implementing the technology plan was to empower its community of learners, although the district has realized other benefits as well. They discovered a way to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of district operations by using thin-client computing. The district's IT support staff was struggling to support 700 desktop computers, and with the technology plan's goals they soon would have had to support 2,000 computers. This would have been impossible without increasing the size of Snowflake's IT staff - something that was not an option with the district's lean budget. However, by choosing to use thin clients, the district's three IT staff members are now able to support more than 2,000 desktops from a central location.

The most significant benefit Snowflake USD experienced was a cost savings of more than $500,000. This was achieved through a few different areas, including reductions in up-front technology costs, replacement costs, utility bills, and the number of hours required to perform updates and ongoing maintenance. The district saved $50,000 on furniture and equipment costs alone because thin clients can sit on smaller, lighter and less expensive desks.

The district was also able to purchase 400 thin clients, as well as develop and implement the infrastructure necessary to run a server-centric computing environment for the same amount of money they would have spent on 400 desktop computers with no back-office support. In addition, it's important to note that thin clients don't become outdated as quickly as desktop computers.

Utility bills were reduced as well since thin clients require less power to operate than desktop computers. And schools are able to keep the computer labs on the same temperature scale as the rest of the school, rather than spend additional money to cool the labs because of the heat desktop computers emit. The district also saved on maintenance costs because thin clients can be set up in a classroom in minutes with all devices centrally managed using Wyse Rapport software, which has reduced computer maintenance and repair costs by 85% districtwide. In addition, updates and changes can now be pushed to the devices without a technician needing to physically touch the thin client.

"We accelerated our deployment plan and met our project goals earlier than expected because we were able to buy twice as many thin clients with our budget than we would have with PCs," says Sims. "[And] the district's projections show that we will continue to see savings over the life of the equipment."

Snowflake USD has fulfilled its technology plan goals and saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by implementing thin-client computing. As a result, its teachers now have the capabilities to expose their students to cutting-edge technology, while the students have greater opportunities to expand their horizons and learn how to be contributing members of the next technological age.

- Gregory A. Wyman, Ed.D.

Contact Information

Wyse Technology Inc.

(800) GET-WYSE

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.