Portland K-12 Network Supports Myriad of Community Services

As coordinator of interagency and strategic planning for Portland Public Schools, the largest district in the Pacific Northwest, Gary Williams oversees about 100 sites and a myriad of instructional programs. In 1994, the district received a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, which has allowed Williams to work with private partners and public agencies to establish a high-speed network linking K-12 schools and community colleges.

Besides delivering multimedia applications to classrooms, the network, when fully implemented this summer, will provide public access to the Internet and to resources from the county library system. "We'd like to think we're reinventing government," says Williams, pointing out the network's mission to serve all members of the community, especially those in economically depressed areas.

Catering to Educators

To build its new Wide Area Network (WAN), Portland Public Schools relied on routers, servers and switches from Cisco Systems, of San Jose, Calif. Founded in 1984 at Stanford University, Cisco is a leading worldwide supplier of high-performance internetworking products, and the firm boasts a specialized program that caters to educational customers.

According to Williams, Cisco has been an "active partner" in his district's networking efforts, with "equal support from all levels" of the company, from senior executives to regional sales personnel. Other partners in the project are PG&E, the local electric utility, and U.S. West, which provides telephone services.

The Portland network incorporates a variety of CiscoPro access and workgroup products. A mid-range model, the CPA 2514 dual-LAN router has two synchronous serial ports for connection to a WAN, 4MB dynamic RAM, 32K nonvolatile RAM and 4MB flash memory for running the Cisco Internetwork Operating System. CiscoVision software provides a Windows-based solution for configuring, monitoring and managing routers and switches on a desktop PC.

Showcasing the latest technology, Lane Middle School has installed a full switched-Ethernet network, capable of transmitting 10Mbps of bandwidth directly to individual computers. As a condition of the grant, local agencies plan to utilize a new privately funded community center built right next to the school -- linked via fiber optics -- to teach vocational skills and offer health care services.

Shared Media Lab

A media lab housing refurbished machines accommodates students during the day and adults after school. For example, Portland Community College offers word processing, spreadsheet and GED classes, with more courses being developed.

In May, selected students and staff members at Lane attended a week-long training program sponsored by Cisco. Videotapes of the sessions will be used for wider staff development. George Ward, a senior consulting engineer at Cisco, has spent considerable time at Portland Public Schools during the training process.

Ward says he expects students and staff to achieve a technical proficiency such that, "when we walk away, we know it (the network) will stay up." He adds that, to him, "the exciting part is training the kids, empowering them to take responsibility."

According to Ward, other schools besides Lane are moving to a switched-Ethernet configuration, which he predicts will become standard within a few years. He adds that Portland may link their network to one that serves Oregon's higher education institutions. Under that scenario, students at Lane could watch, in real time, a professor lecturing at the University of Oregon (in Eugene) or search the card catalog at Willamette University's library (in Salem).

Sharing the Rewards

Not surprisingly, administrators anticipate the demand for Internet access to continue to grow as the new network falls into place. The opportunities for learning are enormous, and Williams says he remains in constant touch with government officials and colleagues in academia to ensure that people of all backgrounds share the rewards.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.