Case Study: A Rural District Gets Connected

If you sometimes get the feeling yours is the last school system still pretty much unplugged in the whole wired world, meet Ed Lampert, technology coordinator for a 1,500-student school district 30 miles east of Pittsburgh.

Four months ago, Lampert, a 25-year technology veteran, became the first technology coordinator ever hired by the Fort Cherry School District. Now, as he confronts the task before him, he’s frustrated, excited, and challenged all at once.

He knows from experience the whole world is out there waiting to hook up with the Fort Cherry schools — but it’s just not happening yet.

“We don’t have local access yet,” he says. “It’s being planned by me.”

The Fort Cherry School District devised its technology plan a year ago in accordance with Pennsylvania’s Link to Learn program, which will provide $127 million in teacher training programs, infrastructure, and community networks to school districts over three years.

Lampert has been hired to make it all happen. Immediately upon taking the job, he began negotiating with the local Hickory Telephone Company for installation of a dedicated line that would link Fort Cherry’s two buildings with the rest of the world.

In Pennsylvania, small local phone companies have been mandated by the state’s public utilities commission to be prepared to provide customers with any service they can (so the big telecommunications companies don’t come in and gobble up state and eRate funds).

Lampert was in the right place at the right time: the Hickory Telephone Company was pleased to work with him.

Still, he was astounded at the cost of a T-1 pipe for the district — $18,000 a year, just for the hook-up. That’s why he has scaled back to a slower 56kbps line. Now, he’s going through the process of getting state matching funds.

As part of the package, the local company is also planning to provide Lampert with video conferencing capabilities via an ISDN line which the small phone company now can lease from AT&T.

In December while putting the finishing touches on his technology plan, he also got local and state approval. Last month, Lampert still was treading water with the rest of the country awaiting the Federal Communications Commission’s official disposition on the eRate application process.

He already had attended a state-sponsored program that walked him through the eRate program. Now, he was trying to sort out what will and won’t be covered by the federal funds. Even though he says Fort Cherry is in a distinctly rural area, he already knows the school system is identified as “urban” under the FCC’s guidelines. That means less eRate money than the district would have qualified for had it been deemed “rural.” The problem is the district’s proximity to Pittsburgh.

It doesn’t matter that Fort Cherry students are disadvantaged because of their schools’ location. Fort Cherry is well behind city schools in terms of technology resources. Three years ago, in a Pittsburgh high school, his own son already had internet access.

Be that as it may, Lampert will have to play catch up using the 50 percent urban eRate, instead of the 55 percent rural discount.

On the brighter side, a company called Zilog awarded Lampert’s school district two complete WebTV set-ups. But that means Lampert is spending evenings and weekends at home learning to surf the web via television. Soon, he says, he’ll need to introduce the WebTV system to Fort Cherry’s teachers and “try to excite them into using the web.”

Despite a lot of activity and a little frustration, Lampert looks around him when he’s at training sessions, and he’s glad he has a technology background.

“That particular foresight came from the superintendent,” he says. “At least I can understand the technical terms. I am finding that the typical person in this position is a teacher with a PC at home.”

eSchool News Staff

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