A new Colorado charter school that opened this fall has saved thousands of dollars in technology costs by getting expert volunteers to do the work, shopping for computer equipment at auctions, and using free Linux software in a thin-client environment.

The small school’s innovative and cost-cutting measures have enabled it to leverage a $77,000 state technology grant to acquire more than $350,000 worth of infrastructure, putting in place more than 100 computers for a school of 435 students and doing it all in less than 90 days, said Kirk R. Rheinlander, a parent volunteer and head of the technology committee for Ridgeview Classical School.

Instead of hiring and paying high salaries for technology staff, the charter school—part of the Poudre Valley School District in Ft. Collins—enlisted parent and community volunteers to form a committee to plan, organize, and implement the school’s technology.

Located in a technology-rich area of Colorado, the school rounded up 15 volunteers—half of whom were parents with technology backgrounds. It also recruited some members of a local Linux hobby group.

“My consulting rate is many, many times more than [what] the school district is [able] to pay someone to do this work,” said Rheinlander, who works as a technology consultant.

“We were basically given the technology budget—which was a state technology grant—to get us off the ground,” Rheinlander said. The committee spent the majority of the money on a high-speed network, large-scale infrastructure, and computer hardware, as the grant rules did not allow software.

The technology committee was able to extend the reach of its $77,000 grant by buying equipment from auctions and liquidation sales.

“We bought a lot of equipment, but we bought it cheap,” Rheinlander said. “For example, we bought an IBM Netfinity server for just over $1,000.” The server usually costs about $20,000, he said.

“We bought a collapsed-backbone, gigabit fiber-optic switch for $2,900,” Rheinlander added. “It was nice that all these dot-coms chose to go out of business when we needed to buy stuff for the school.”

Usually when a school makes a purchase, it needs to go through a bidding process. However, Rheinlander said the technology committee could take advantage of low-priced, practically new equipment because Ridgeview Classical School is a charter school, and the grant did not require a bidding process.

“It’s something any school district could do if they were willing to rewrite the rules,” he said.

Instead of installing full-fledged desktop computers throughout the school, the committee opted to use thin-client technology, in which all data and software resides on a server and is accessed by “terminal” computer stations.

The school received 100 donated computers and stripped them of memory, disk drives, and other components to reduce the amount of maintenance the machines would require.

“The machines are run with 8 megabytes of memory, a graphics card, and no disk drives,” Rheinlander said. “The problem with local storage is you have people putting stuff on there, and then you have machines to maintain.”

Donated computers often end up costing schools more money than they are worth, but Rheinlander said a thin-client environment doesn’t require the fastest, latest computers.

“I can see where some schools say donated computers are more hassle than [they’re] worth, because you can’t run the more current software, but you don’t have that problem if you run the software in a terminal server environment—even on the Microsoft Exchange server,” Rheinlander said. “By using the terminal server environment, we were able to extend the life of old computers.”

Five IBM Netfinity multiprocessor servers power the school’s network. “We put a lot of RAM in them, because when you’re running a terminal server environment you need a lot of RAM,” he said.

In a thin-client environment, the power is more important on the server side, because the servers are what run the applications, Rheinlander explained.

“Performance in this case depends on how fast the information moves from the server to the terminals,” he said.

The school uses Red Hat Linux for its operating system and Linux Terminal Server Package for productivity and educational software. “There’s no cost associated with licensing, so it’s efficient for schools,” Rheinlander said.

“If we were to buy all the software licenses and machines with the horsepower we needed, it would have cost exceedingly more than our budget,” Rheinlander said. Besides, “the grant didn’t allow us to buy software, only hardware.”

The Linux Terminal Server Package web site packages a free group of educational software titles—including math and reading programs—that run on Linux. The web site “made it easy, because someone actually did the research to find a bunch of [applications] that run in a Linux environment for education,” Rheinlander said.

The package includes Sun Microsystems’ StarOffice, which is similar to Microsoft Office, except that it’s free. It’s also compatible with Microsoft Word.

The Linux environment is not compatible with all Windows-based programs, but a software program called Win4Lin allows users to install Windows on top of Linux to get around this problem. “It runs a real live copy of Windows as a process in Linux,” Rheinlander said.

Unlike the lab and classroom computers, each teacher received a full-blown Windows machine, Rheinlander said. The computers are equipped with speakers and DVD drives to accommodate all types of classroom multimedia.

The only software that gets installed on these machines are “the things that don’t work well in a server environment, and that’s usually the Reader Rabbit, multimedia-type [software],” Rheinlander said.

To save time and effort installing network cables in a fairly old building, Rheinlander said the committee used a gigabit fiber-optic switch so they only had to run a single fiber-optic wire to each classroom, instead of pulling bundles of wire to each room. Potentially, 24 computers can run through one fiber-optic cable, Rheinlander said.

In the Linux environment, each computer terminal can be maintained remotely. This also means the technology committee can support the school’s network without ever having to go to the school.

“People log in from home or work or wherever and work on [the school’s network] from there,” Rheinlander said.

Related links:
Ridgeview Classical School

Linux Terminal Server Project