When Peter McGehee joined the St. Louis Public Schools as executive director of technology services in September 1999, he identified wiring as the district’s greatest area of need. Two years later, all 108 schools are close to being networked for $54 million, more than $47 million of which was paid for with federal eRate funds. Here’s how the district was able to meet its goals so quickly.

At the time, the district received phone consulting and support from Dietrich Lockard Group, a St. Louis management consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and eRate consulting. Recognizing the opportunity to use eRate funds for the district’s wiring project, Dietrich Lockard and McGehee contacted several corporations in the region and formed a consortium of companies—including Southwestern Bell Corp., Cisco, and Applied Information Systems—to create a crash design program, with the goal of providing 12 network drops (lines) in each of 3,000 classrooms.

The design called for a new Ethernet network with a gigabit backbone in every school, 100 megabits per second (Mbps) to every desktop, structured cabling systems, new private branch exchange (PBX) telephone systems, and a high-bandwidth Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) wide-area network (WAN) to tie the whole district together.

The district applied for Year Three eRate funding and received $47.3 million for the project in May 2000. This turned out to be the sixth largest award in the country, trailing only those of larger cities.

The challenges

The cabling project faced two big challenges. First and foremost was the project’s limited time frame. Because the eRate requires schools to spend funds by September 30 of the program year they are committed, the entire district would have to be wired and online in just fifteen months.

“I was advised by numerous people that this project was too ambitious and we would never be able to pull it off, but look at where we are now,” said McGehee. Where they are is virtually finished, with the final hook-ups expected to be completed by the end of August.

Realizing the project’s immensity and its strict time limitations, the district retained Dietrich Lockard Group as the project manager. In addition, Peter Mudd, a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer who had been hired to support technology in a local school, was asked to manage the project from the district’s side.

To meet the unforgiving eRate deadline, 10 contractors were employed on parallel schedules, with each contractor servicing at least 10 schools. This arrangement required close teamwork and tight project coordination, said Don Dietrich, vice president of Dietrich Lockard Group. In addition, the cabling took place with school in session, as there was far too much work to wedge into the summer months.

Dietrich Lockard urged the district to select multiple vendors at the outset to assure timely completion. Requests for proposals (RFPs) were issued in groups of about 10 schools each, and vendors had to respond to at least one group. Each vendor was awarded one or more groups based on price, capability, and other factors.

Vendors received guidelines in conduct and awareness when working in schools. Coordination with each school’s principal also was key. Dietrich Lockard made initial contact with each principal before the start of work and has kept them informed through a series of on-site visits and fax updates.

Through careful planning and constant communication between designers, installers, and building faculty, workers were able to time their use of ladders in the student areas and work around the schools’ day-to-day activities. Some of the installers have even given demonstrations, offering kids a crash course in cabling a data communications system.

The second challenge to the project was the age and architecture of the schools. Many had beautiful architectural features, but virtually none had telecommunications closets or server rooms. Cable crews were faced with concrete or brick walls, limited space, and high ceilings. In some cases, masonry walls were three to four feet thick. Some ceilings were nearly 15 feet high, with curved archways; cable was difficult to hide and had to be run through metal raceways. Cabinets had to be installed to substitute for the telecommunications rooms and server rooms.

The No. 1 criterion for the Main Distribution Frame (MDF)—the school’s connection point to the internet, as well as the hub for all network activity within the school—was that it had to be placed in an air-conditioned location. Most of the schools only had air conditioning in the main office, which limited the location of the MDF. The telephone closets ended up in several different areas, such as janitor closets, teachers’ lounges, or storage closets.

Procedures that paid off

A key step was to file the eRate request as an entire district, rather than on a school-by-school basis. Dietrich Lockard worked with the district to divide up the effort into manageable packages within each area: data equipment, cabling, and voice systems.

Filing as an entire district allowed project managers to allocate equipment as required to meet the changing demands of a dynamic school district. It also enabled Dietrich Lockard to treat the equipment and labor as a single job, rather than a series of 100-plus distinct tasks. The flexibility this allows is critical for a project of this magnitude.

“For example, if we had received individual funding commitments for each school, we would have had to deal with a deluge of purchase orders and invoices,” said Don Dietrich, the company’s vice president. “Because we filed as a district, we issued one purchase order to each vendor, which covered all buildings.

“Further, if a particular school reallocated office space to classroom space, we would have had to file a form with the Federal Communications Commission requesting a change in the project’s scope. As we structured the project in our application, however, the changes were accounted for on a district-wide basis, thus allowing for changes that cancel each other out across multiple schools.”

Managing the district’s cable installation for Dietrich Lockard was Lori Thompson. She found that the work packages provided the necessary flexibility for allocating additional money to cover changes that cropped up during installation, such as an increase in the desired number of connections at a particular school.

“After the first couple of schools were cabled, we needed to make minor modifications to the [project’s] scope,” Thompson said. “Filing as an entire district gave us the ability to make necessary changes in a timely manner without having to refile and delay progress.”

Contractors were required to submit a detailed timeline and bill of materials so that principals would know when to expect them and Dietrich Lockard could verify they were provisioning each school adequately, Thompson said. Upon completion of the cabling, contractors were required to furnish “as-built” drawings and complete test results. These were reviewed to ensure that all requirements were fulfilled and that all copper and fiber cable met proper standards.

Finally, a walk-through was conducted at each school by the district and Dietrich Lockard. Visual inspections were made to ensure the quality of the installation and determine whether approval for acceptance could be given.

Because of the size of the project and its tight timetable, Dietrich Lockard set up a prototype for the data installation and cabling to instruct all contractors on the proper configuration. A LAN/WAN prototype also served as a test lab to bring LAN and WAN vendors together to test the LAN switches and routers as they interfaced to the ATM network.

“The goal was to make the layout as cookie-cutter as possible, so that upon completion each of the 108 schools would be virtually identical. This will be of great help to the staff in the ongoing maintenance of the systems,” said Mike Jackson, electronics supervisor.

Through careful planning and cooperation, standards were developed and refined to deal with everything from labels on classroom outlets to the configuration of every switch port. The end result is a system of VLANs (virtual LANs) with standard configurations and built-in management and troubleshooting capability.

The prototype initially was installed at Dietrich Lockard’s facility, because the district’s headquarters were being relocated last fall. It has since been moved to the board of education’s network operations center. Vendors and district personnel ran tests and tried out network tools at the site prior to installing them in the field.

“Because the equipment used to create the prototype will be installed in the final school to be networked—Roosevelt High School—we were able to build its cost into the project itself and have eRate funds pay for it,” Dietrich said.

The results

Once all construction has been completed, the schools will share in an enhanced learning environment. Excitement among both faculty and staff already is soaring. Mudd, who is deputy director of technology services, is looking forward to seeing how the new technology will affect education and learning.

“We will use project-based learning. It’s the best way to use technology in the classroom,” Mudd said. “In project-based learning, teachers take on a facilitative role, and students learn how to use the technology to accomplish project-related tasks in every subject.”

The St. Louis Public Schools will train teachers to be comfortable with computers, so they can integrate technology into their daily lessons. “Our goal is to implement the use of computers into the classroom and into the lives of students and teachers,” Mudd added. “And that requires a tremendous amount of training and buy-in from all levels.”

The district is adopting a one-to-six ratio for computers to students. Each computer will be located either on or in classroom desks and will contain Microsoft Office, eMail, and internet browsing capabilities. Other software will be available for specific areas of learning.

“Students will receive assignments in the form of web pages and will be able to access information from any computer at any school within the district,” Mudd said. “This is important, [because] many kids participate in after-hours programs at different schools.”

Mudd also knows that delivering the latest data communications technology to 44,000 students requires a superior infrastructure and quality installation job. “We wouldn’t be able to accomplish our goals without dedicated designers and installers and quality cabling solutions that allow technology to make a critical leap out of the lab and into the classroom, where the real work gets done,” he said. Careful project planning and day-to-day management of each school have kept the project on track and within budget.

Links:

St. Louis Public Schools
http://www.slps.org

Dietrich Lockard Group
http://www.dietrichlockard.com