A case study of Oklahoma City’s Western Heights School District has taken its rightful place along with Archie Bunker’s chair in the Smithsonian Institution.

Nominated by Intel Corp. for its advanced telecommunications network, Western Heights was one of about 30 K-12 schools or districts to be honored in this year’s Computerworld Smithsonian Awards. For being nominated, each school’s case study was enshrined in the Smithsonian’s Permanent Research Collection on Information Technology. A final winner in the education category will be announced June 8.

Joe Kitchens, the Western Heights superintendent–who was present for the April 6 ceremony in Washington–attributed his district’s technology success to the vision of its community.

“For a community where 69 percent of the children are economically disadvantaged, [this award] says something about our voters’ level of commitment to their children’s education,” Kitchens said. “It’s very gratifying to the people of the district.”

Thanks to the community’s support, the students of Western Heights routinely use computer and videoconferencing technology in their everyday studies. Each building is connected to a main server at the high school campus via fiber optic lines to create a local-area network called JetNet. Five network ports in each classroom bring the internet and videoconferencing to the students. The network is linked to the internet through a speedy T1 line.

Origins of JetNet

Kitchens has been involved in the district’s technology planning since it started four years ago. In the summer of 1994, as assistant superintendent, he served on an advisory committee to study how best to upgrade the district’s technology capabilities. At the time, students were using un-networked Apple IIe computers concentrated in computer labs.

After consulting with engineers and meeting for four months, the committee submitted its plan to the school board, along with a recommendation that a bond issue of $9 million be approved-half for building infrastructure and half for the installation of a network. In March of 1995, the bond issue passed “overwhelmingly,” Kitchens said.

The committee had decided to purchase 17 miles of fiber-optic cable for the network. “If we were going to do it, we wanted to do it right,” Kitchens explained, noting that the committee wanted a district-owned backbone that would support its schools well into the future.

A key decision in the committee’s plan was to wire each classroom with five separate network ports. The rationale: Research suggests that for any given classroom, there are five different learning styles common to its students. “We wanted to be able to respond to the needs of all our students,” Kitchens said.

Construction began during the summer of 1996, and by December of the same year, the district had a functioning wide-area network. But even before the first cable had been laid, staff development was under way to ensure that teachers were proficient in the new technology.

Two teachers per building were trained to teach the others how to use eMail, word processing, spreadsheet, and internet applications. Kitchens said the district used teacher trainers so teachers would feel more comfortable learning the new technology from their colleagues, and there would be someone available in each building if anyone needed assistance.

All teachers received 32 hours of training in the spring of 1996 before the network was in place, and they continue to receive up to 60 hours of training each year. Kitchens said the district offers novice, intermediate, and advanced training sessions, typically one night per week for several weeks. The money for training comes from Title 2 or 6 federal funding.

Teleconferencing

From the beginning of its online history, Western Heights has embraced videoconferencing as just as valuable a tool as internet access.

“Because of the collaborative nature of videoconferencing, we believe it has tremendous potential for education,” Kitchens said. “It fosters cooperative learning experiences between staff and students and allows students to use information from the internet in meaningful ways.”

Kitchens cites a variety of examples of how videoconferencing has transformed education at the district’s schools. For instance, students have collaborated with a school in Bristol, England, seven U.S. senators, and members of the British Parliament to compare the two forms of government; and a meteorologist from a local television station routinely teaches students about weather.

“Those are exciting experiences that really charge the kids,” Kitchens said. He hopes to expand the collaboration with the local TV station to include a sportscaster who can discuss such things as batting averages and the physics of hitting with students.

Perhaps the best example, though, is the student who was wounded in a shooting incident last year and would have missed the entire 1997 spring semester of school. The district installed an ISDN line to his home so he could participate in all of his classes through videoconferencing.

“It only cost us $70 per month for the ISDN line-everything else, we already had,” Kitchens said. “We were able to help him continue his studies without losing any time or credit, and it cost us far less than it would have cost to provide a tutor.”

A moving target

Kitchens said because the district made a large initial investment, it has had relatively few maintenance costs to grapple with. Even so, technology remains an ongoing development.

Western Heights has a five-year technology plan in place. Kitchens said it’s important to make everyone in the community aware of what your own plan is-and to follow through on your promises.

“If we tell the public we’re going to do something, it gets done. That reinforces the public’s trust the next time a bond issue is raised for a vote.”

Western Heights School District
http://www.westernheights.k12.ok.us