Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

Area News

August 31, 2012

WiFi in schools project to move forward

CROSSVILLE — Use of mobile technology is increasing daily in Cumberland County schools, but outdated technology makes utilizing the newest tools and applications difficult.

Thursday, the Cumberland County Board of Education voted unanimously to use funds previously budgeted for an expansion at Pine View Elementary School to complete a system-wide upgrade. The construction project came in under budget, allowing use of the funds for the capital project.

"We've got to move forward," said Director of Schools Aarona VanWinkle. "We've got laptops and iPads and NEOs. Kids are coming in with their smart phones and tablets and taking up bandwidth. We're not able to use what we've got now."

The school system had prepared a proposal for wireless upgrades throughout the school system to the E-Rate program of the Federal Communications Commission, which provides funding for schools for Internet services, telecommunication and infrastructure upgrades. That project was approved at an estimated cost of $720,000 but before funding was disbursed, the FCC changed the threshold of free and reduced lunch participation required to receive funds. The threshold was set at 90 percent, while Cumberland County's level is 84 percent. That means the school system did not qualify for priority funds and would only be funded with surplus dollars.

VanWinkle said $120,000 had been budgeted for network upgrades in the schools. The board had also budgeted $2 million for an addition at Pine View Elementary, but the bid for that project came in under budget at $1.3 million, leaving a $691,000 surplus. She recommended using $600,000 of those funds to complete a system-wide upgrade project.

"Next year, if they do lower the bar and award funds, we can still apply and get reimbursed," VanWinkle said. "But we can't sit around and wait. We desperately need it."

Eric Testorff, technology coordinator, explained schools received their Internet through fiber optic cables. That is distributed through the school using wiring "closets," which can be as many as 20 at Cumberland County High School to as few as one at the Phoenix School. Each wire in the closet represents a computer or printer or some other network connection. Some of the switches are more than 15 years old and cannot support wireless technology.

This type of wiring causes difficulties in classrooms because it requires fixed computer stations. Also, each computer or piece of network equipment requires a power source. Many classrooms do not have adequate power outlets. Also, new products such as iPads and tablets do not have connection ports and can only connect to the Internet through wireless signals.

The project would provide wireless Internet access at all schools, with coverage in all instructional and office spaces that was dependable. It would use industrial grade wireless units that can support 30 to 70 devices connected at fast speeds. These would operate much like cell phone towers, with one device handing users off to another without dropping the signal.

Kim Herring, a teacher at Cumberland County High School, said her students use a set of iPads to take notes during class. Because the students can't take the iPads with them, they save their notes to the Internet to access at home or through other mobile devices, such as smart phones.

"They take notes while I'm teaching. They download my starter notes to their accounts. They take pictures of the whiteboard during class," Herring said. "If the Internet goes down, they can't get their notes."

David Bowman, 7th District representative, moved to approve the budget amendment, supported by Victor Randolph, 6th District representative.

Jim Blalock, 8th District representative, said, "I think we need to leave enough money in there to make sure that we can get these buildings built [Pleasant Hill Elementary addition and Pine View Elementary addition]. They've got to have furniture in them and equipment for the science labs."

VanWinkle said her request would reserve $91,000 for completing both building projects and providing furniture and supplies when combined with $100,000 budgeted for that purpose.

Sandy Brewer, 3rd District representative, asked for greater detail in how the project would be implemented.

"This is a lot of money to commit all at once," Brewer said. "Is this something we can fund now or something to look at doing in phases, or is it a system-wide wham-bam?"

Testorff said the project was for every school, but if it had to be broken into phases, he would suggest starting with Homestead Elementary, which had new switches installed last year that were compatible with the project.

"We're halfway there at Homestead," Testorff explained. Next would be SMHS, which received new laptops this year as part of the technology replenishment cycle of the system. Those laptops meant a greater demand for wireless capability. The third school would be Pleasant Hill, which has little wiring because of the block construction.

VanWinkle said, "We have a plan to do the whole system. We know the type of wires and routers. We've met with engineers. The plan is in place and has been approved by E-Rate."

Brewer said she would want all three high schools to have wireless at the same time.

VanWinkle said, "I would encourage the board to do the whole project rather than pick and choose schools. Martin Elementary is in dire need, just like a lot of other schools."

Richard Janeway, 2nd District representative, said, "I can relate. You don't realize how quickly you get behind in technology. We applied last year and put this off. How much longer can we wait? The kids needed this two years ago."

Testorff said it would take about a year to complete the upgrade at all schools, with all schools coming on line at about the same time before the start of the 2013 school year. One type of work would be done system wide before moving to the next type of work.

The board voted unanimously to fund the project.

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