Wednesday, August 21, 2013

TOP STORY >> Pryor touts plan to wire schools in visit to Cabot

Leader staff writer

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Federal Communications Commission member Jessica Rosenworcel on Monday visited with Cabot School District officials at the Central Administrative Office board room to discuss the need for affordable Internet services and technology equipment in the classrooms.

Pryor and Rosenworcel also went to a 10th-grade high school English class where Google Chromebook laptop computers are being used by students.

Pryor is chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and Internet.

School officials explained to the senator and the commissioner the need for affordable Internet access, the equipment and the capacity to handle the demands of hundreds of students using the computer networks all at the same time. They said the district needs to handle the demand without causing interruptions to service or overloading the system.

Public schools and libraries receive discounts on telephone and Internet services from the federal government’s E-Rate program. Funding is collected through the Universal Service Fund, a fee listed on telephone and cable bills.

“The Universal Service Fundwas created to build phone infrastructure over 70 years ago in rural U.S.,” Cabot School District technology director Kendal Wells explained.

Commissioner Rosenwor-cel said, “E-Rate is the nation’s largest technology educational program. It has been really successful at connecting our schools. The challenge now is no longer about connection. It’s about capacity.”

She said that over the next year the FCC will take a closer look at the E-Rate program to focus on capacity and reduce the bureaucracy. She would like to see the ability for bulk buying of Internet bandwidth, longer funding times instead of yearly deadlines and a simplifying of the application process.

“The program over time has gotten so complicated that we are deterring small and rural schools from applying, the ones that need it most,” Rosenworcel said.

She noted that the demand for E-Rate funding is high and is going to continue to grow.

“The way it is distributed now is school districts are set up in a queue based on the number of students that get free and reduced lunch. The districts at the top of the queue get the greatest discount, but we have to start thinking about capacity and high-speed,” Rocenworcel said.

Superintendent Tony Thurman said schools will need more Internet bandwidth to handle the Common Core tests and to deliver curriculum that is available on the Internet. The number of devices used on school campuses is growing rapidly.

Cabot has 10,300 students in 15 schools with 2,100 students at the high school. The district has 492 wireless access points where computer devices can connect to a network.

“With the move toward every student having a device in their hands, the district will need 300 more access points in the next two to three years,” Thurman said.

The Cabot School District is provided with 100 megabytes of Internet bandwidth by the Arkansas Department of Information Systems. The district spent 7 percent of its $900,000 technology budget on bandwidth, purchasing an additional 100 megabytes of bandwidth from Suddenlink and 2,000 megabytes of bandwidth from Windstream.

The annual cost of the district’s 2,200 megabytes of bandwidth is $162,000. E-Rate pays $94,300, and the district is left to pay $68,300. The district receives $56,000 in E-Rate funding for phone service this year.

Wells said, “We would struggle to cover that amount if we didn’t have E-Rate.”

Another piece of the issue is what can be done about low-income families that don’t have Internet at home.

Thurman told the school board at its Tuesday meeting that the district and Suddenlink have partnered for the “Connect to Complete” program that would allow those students on free and reduced lunch to pay a $9.95 a month for Internet service and be exempt from set-up fees. Parents who are interested can call Suddenlink and the company will verify that they are eligible for the program.

“For a lot of those kids, they can’t do some of things we want them to do at home. Even if we put their information in a “cloud”, they can work from home, but cannot get the connectivity,” Thurman said.

Pryor asked why Cabot has two Internet service providers.

Thurman said it was advantageous to have two different carriers because, if the district loses one provider, the district can still operate. “If I’m a 100 percent provider and it goes down, this district is closed,” he explained.

Thurman added that the current amount of bandwidth will support the district for three years.

“We are one of the top districts in how much we are offering. This is very progressive for Arkansas. We are in a good state, but it is going to change tremendously in the next few years,” Thurman said.

He continued, “As far along as we are in this state, we are still not where we need to be, even here, to be able to do the things with technology in our classrooms kids really need us to be doing.”

Thurman said that in Arkansas all the attention is on the ability to test. He said there are another 175 days children need to be able to access technology. Students need to be able get online and stay online, Thurman said.

He said the district has been proactive in upgrading its technology infrastructure so that it can handle the heavy demand for computer devices.

“When the students come to school, if you can’t have more than three or four computers running online at the same time, causing them to “buffer” for five minutes, that’s not going to work,” Thurman explained.

He added that the district has been committed to technology infrastructure over the past seven years, when it has was cool for school districts to be in the news for students having their own laptop computers to take home. At the school board meeting, Thurman explained that those districts are in trouble because they bought devices before the infrastructure, unlike Cabot.

Thurman said the district used hundreds of thousands of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds for electrical upgrades, access points and wireless structures.

The federal stimulus money helped kickstart the district to where it is today with its technology infrastructure Thurman noted.

Wells suggested that Pryor and Rosenworcel let E-Rate funding continue funding Internet bandwidth and also start funding the equipment that serves and delivers bandwidth to the classroom with the same priority.

“We can bring all the bandwidth to a district, but if the network can’t handle it, it doesn’t do us a bit of good,” Wells said.

Thurman said, “This district has developed its own Wiki-based platform. We have taken all the learning standards and transformed them over to Common Core standards. Our teachers can go onto our own locked website and can pull up any learning expectations and get sample lessons to use, most often dealing with some type of technology.”

Thurman said the district has chosen Chromebooks because those laptop computers were more cost effective for the district. Files are saved using a “cloud,” an on-line storage space, instead of a computer or a disk.

Students, beginning in kindergarten, are trained to put school work on a “cloud” so the district doesn’t have to have file space.

Pryor and Rosenworcel toured a high school classroom to see students learning how to store files and update their accounts. Pryor told the students why he and the FCC commissioner were at there because “we had a (Senate Commerce Field) hearing, I’m on the Commerce committee and chair of subcommittee that oversees communications, technology and Internet in the Senate. We did the hearing this morning, came here to see you guys, and tomorrow (Tuesday), the commissioner will talk with the Arkansas Telecommuni-cations Association.”

A member of Pryor’s staff said the senator made a visit the school district because it is on the edge of technology and seeing the results of spending federal stimulus money to build and upgrade technology.