Ed-Tech Bonanza

In a windowless office inside a low-lying building in the dust and heat of Las Vegas, Philip Brody gestures toward a large map hanging on the wall behind him. It’s a diagram of what might be the most sophisticated wide-area network (WAN) of any K-12 school district in the country.

The map shows a series of rings that are interconnected by fiber-optic backbones. Each ring, which represents an area of the county, has four leaves. At the network’s core are two Tier 1 sites that connect to the internet and feed it to the various rings. The entire system is based on the Gigabit Ethernet standard, which supports data transfer speeds of up to 1,000 megabits per second to each building–or more than 600 times faster than a T1 line. Most impressive of all, the network contains built-in redundancies throughout, so that wherever you might cut the connection, there’s always another path for the data to travel.

“Conceptually, there is no single point of failure,” Brody says proudly.

Brody has good reason to be pleased with his creation. When he first arrived at Nevada’s Clark County School District as its new chief technology officer (CTO) seven years ago, the district’s technology infrastructure “was just in chaos,” he says. There was no single, centralized WAN, and each school was on its own in terms of connectivity. Some had dial-up connections, while others had ISDN hookups or T1 lines–and many had no internet service at all.

Today, its state-of-the-art WAN is putting Clark County on the national map as a leader in educational technology. It’s enabling the kind of instructional innovations and operational efficiencies that officials in many other large school systems can only dream about. Here are just a few examples:

  • Clark County enjoys a true convergence of voice, video, and data traffic on its WAN. The ability to route telephone calls across its network has enabled the county to more than double the number of phones installed in its classrooms–and still save about $1 million per year in telephone line charges.

  • The use of video streaming is transforming how teachers teach and students learn. Teachers can search for short snippets of video to illustrate hard-to-understand concepts from a searchable database arranged by subject, grade level, and the curriculum standard they are aiming to cover. By the end of the last school year, Clark County teachers reportedly were streaming about 30,000 video clips per month–and these didn’t even begin to stress the network.

  • Clark County operates its own Virtual High School that served some 5,900 part-time and 230 full-time students last year–eight of whom received diplomas June 10 after completing their coursework entirely online.

That such an impressive technology infrastructure is possible, given the extreme geographical challenges that Clark County faces, is all the more remarkable. The nation’s fifth largest school system is also its fastest growing, opening an average of one new school building per month. It spans an area the size of New Jersey, with some of its 300-plus schools separated by as many as 90 miles of desert. Yet Clark County completed its WAN in just 18 months–without tapping into any of its operating budget.

Instead of serving as obstacles, these geographic challenges have merely underscored the need for such an investment in technology.

“Clark County might be the only school system in the nation that operates a virtual high school largely because of its growth; it can’t keep up the pace of building new schools to match its expansion,” said

Thomas Lapping, president of JDL Technologies, a systems integration company that is helping to train the county’s teachers to deliver online instruction.

Clark County’s success story might seem like a tall tale straight out of the Wild West, but the truth is, this large district is paving the way for others to follow. What makes it all possible, district officials say, is a real “frontier” spirit that includes a willingness to take measured risks.

Though some of the reasons for the district’s success are unique to its situation, Clark County’s story nevertheless serves as a tremendous example for educators in other large school systems to learn from. To find out how district officials have accomplished everything they have, read on.

Once upon a time in the West

In some ways, Brody seems an unlikely architect of Clark County’s transformation from what he calls “a late bloomer” to a leader in technology use. He’s a former fifth-grade teacher from the Bronx who still carries his New York accent in a town that springs from the Western desert. But his classroom experience actually serves him well in his current position–for it keeps his focus squarely on the educational applications of the district’s technology initiatives.

“I consider Dr. Brody to be a visionary in putting technology into place to support instructional practices,” said JDL’s Lapping.

When Brody joined the Clark County schools in 1998, the district was mired in a contract with several different vendors to support its computers. One of his first orders of business was to streamline the district’s tech support.

“If you had a problem, it would take you six weeks to get your computer fixed,” Brody recalled. “They’d look at your computer and say, ‘You need a widget. Buy it, and call us when you get it.’ Then it would be another six weeks before they could return to put it in. I mean, it was chaos.”

Brody established an in-house support team to take care of the district’s own computer maintenance, though Clark County still contracts out some of its supplemental support services. He also made a three-year warranty a fixture of the district’s computer standards, and last year the district began using software for remote desktop management and support. Through a combination of these improved efficiencies, Clark County’s support costs are now six times less expensive per computer.

Brody estimates the district was paying about $177 per computer just for maintenance and support before he arrived. Now, that figure is down to about $27 per machine. “We take care of 90,000 to 100,000 computers now at almost half the cost of what it took to maintain 30,000 PCs before–and we do it faster,” he said.

Brody’s other main charge was to connect all of the county’s schools to the internet and to each other through a single, standardized network. “The first thing I did was a quick fix–I got all the schools on a frame-relay network,” he said. “At least then everyone had connectivity. But my dream was having a converged network.”

The vision that served as the basis for Brody’s dream was the idea that “once something becomes digital, it all becomes the same,” he said. Voice, video, and data transmissions all could flow over the same technology infrastructure–provided there was enough bandwidth to accommodate them. And using a single technology infrastructure for each of these applications would save money in the long run–eliminating the need for separate systems to transmit telephone and cable TV signals, for example.

Clark County hired the high-tech services firm Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) to design its WAN and serve as the project’s systems integrator. This was during the 1999-2000 school year, when Gigabit Ethernet still was a newly emerging standard.

“Most people hadn’t heard of Gigabit Ethernet yet,” Brody said. He added that many school systems were building Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) networks at the time, but “we knew that was too expensive and complex for schools. Schools can’t afford to hire engineers” to maintain their networks, he explained.

To support a Gigabit Ethernet network, the district would have to run fiber to all of its schools. “What we’re paying for fiber is more than a T1 line, but with our T1s, we were going to have to double or triple them anyway” to each building, Brody said. “So, for a little more than we were paying for our T1s, we’ve got [fiber-optic lines to each school]. And the phones are literally riding on them for free, so it’s become a really win-win situation in terms of our operational costs. Plus, it’s provided an incredible value add to the district” by enabling the use of video for instruction.

Looking back, Brody says, one of the most important things Clark County ever did was to establish an 18-month demonstration project before moving ahead with the full construction of its network.

Officials chose seven schools from the county’s poorest communities: one high school, two middle schools, and four elementary schools. These schools served as demonstration sites for the network, and for the district’s policies and procedures.

“We loaded them up with all sorts of instructional technologies; we wanted to demonstrate the kinds of instructional practices that were possible,” Brody said. “This was not just to demonstrate the WAN itself, but what people could do with the technology.”

District officials learned a lot from their demonstration project. They discovered that Gigabit Ethernet technology would work–and that their vision for voice over internet protocol (VoIP) service was truly viable. Moreover, support for the WAN project skyrocketed when parents and teachers saw the instructional benefits that were possible.

“Politically it was a good move, and technically it was a good move,” said Brody of the demonstration project. “It took a little longer than we wanted, but it paid tremendous dividends.”

A fistful of dollars

In paying for its WAN, Clark County enjoyed some advantages that not many other large districts would have. But district officials also leveraged their funds creatively and made smart purchasing decisions from which they continue to reap rewards.

There’s a Gold Rush still going on in the West, but it’s not in California–it’s in Clark County’s Vegas Valley, which has been the fastest-growing metropolitan region in the United States since 1995. Lured by the oasis in the desert that is Las Vegas, with its 50,000 new jobs created annually, more than 5,000 newcomers reportedly move to that city’s valley every month.

In 1970, the valley had a population of 273,288, according to Clark County government records. In 2004, the valley’s population was 1.7 million. If current growth trends continue, Clark County is expected to add 1 million more people to its population by 2024.

The effect this growth has had on the district’s student population is astounding. In 1987, there were 100,000 students in Clark County schools. This fall, district officials estimate they will serve about 295,000 students–and they believe there will be more than 400,000 students by the year 2010.

To keep pace with such rapid expansion, stakeholders of the Clark County school system passed a 10-year, $3.6 billion bond measure in 1998. The bond money was supposed to support the construction of 88 new schools in 10 years, but in reality the county has built 96 schools in the last eight years, Brody said–including 12 new schools that opened this fall, bringing the district’s total to 317 schools.

Besides using this bond money to build new schools, district officials also tapped into it to pay for the construction of their WAN.

“We’re very short on operating funds,” Brody explained. “Nevada is one of the lowest in the nation in per-pupil funding from the state.” But one thing the district does have is bond money, which can be used for any capital expenditures–including the acquisition of technology.

Clark County also benefited from the timing of its WAN project. After the demonstration phase was completed, the district put out bids for the entire project. Because this was at the height of the dot-com bust, the county got what amounted to some “great deals” from its providers, Brody said, including Cox Cable and Foundry Networks. As a result, the district was able to connect nearly 300 schools to a Gigabit Ethernet network for the relatively small sum of $17 million. Further adding to its cost savings was the fact that district employees did much of the work.

Remarkably, given the huge scope of the project, the network was completed in just 18 months. One reason was the district’s decision to forgo eRate funding and pay for the project itself. Not many of the county’s schools qualified for eRate discounts that were high enough to guarantee funding for internal connections, Brody explained, so a decision had to be made: Should district officials pay for about 40 percent of the project’s cost themselves, out of their general operating funds–or should they transfer the entire cost of the project to the county’s capital outlays? They chose the latter, which had the added benefit of avoiding lengthy delays and other red tape associated with the eRate application process.

Not all of the district’s 300-plus schools are connected to its Gigabit Ethernet WAN. There are 17 schools located in outlying areas, where fiber was not available. These schools are networked together with T1 lines via frame-relay technology. But, thanks to technology known as Voice over Frame Relay, even these schools can place telephone calls to each other and to the district’s remaining schools over its computer network.

Dialing up huge savings

The fact that money is readily available for capital expenditures, but not for operating expenses, underlies Clark County’s approach to its entire technology planning. “Our philosophy is, What capital improvements can we make to save on operating costs?” Brody said. Placing telephone calls over its WAN, with help from service provider Alcatel USA, is a primary example of this line of thinking.

With its old centrex-based telephone system, the district was paying about $14 per phone, per month, for 9,000 phones. Owing to the school board’s drive to have phones in every classroom, however, Clark County now has about 20,000 phones on its system–but pays just $3 per phone, per month.

Much of these savings comes from eliminating the monthly charges for centrex telephone lines, which are no longer needed with a VoIP system, and some comes from avoiding long-distance charges on certain school-to-school calls. “We’ve disconnected over 4,000 old centrex lines so far,” Brody said.

He believes the district eventually will have 27,000 phones, yet will be able to operate its phone system using the same staff that handled 9,000 phones before, because “everything is automated” with a digital system. And he tells a story that aptly sums up the impact the system is having on the district’s finances.

“A few weeks ago, our CFO [Chief Financial Officer Walt Rulffes, who at press time was serving as co-interim superintendent] says to me, ‘Phil, I’m looking at your next year’s budget and I think there’s an error here that you need to check,'” Brody recalled. “He said, ‘Your line item for service’–data lines and phone lines–‘is $900,000 less than last year’s, and I know you’ve been putting phone lines in like crazy–double check.’ So I call up my phone guy and say, ‘Let’s go over this.’ And I go back to my CFO and I say, ‘Walt, it’s right.’ And he says, ‘Wow. In all the years I’ve been CFO, everybody always comes and tells me how they’re going to save money–and it never happens.’ But now we have.”

Realizing a dream

On the instructional side, teachers and students are benefiting from the district’s advanced network as well. One of the key applications made possible by its Gigabit Ethernet WAN is the district’s use of video to support instruction.

Clark County teachers now can click on the titles of any of 22,000 instructional video clips and have the clips delivered to their desktop computers within six seconds, all from inside the district’s firewall. The service is proving to be enormously popular with teachers. During the 2003-2004 school year, when the district introduced its video streaming service, there were 50,000 total downloads; last year, there were 200,000–and district officials expect they will see as many as 500,000 downloads within three years.

“Because we’ve been so successful, we’re becoming known as a national leader in video instruction,” Brody said. (For more on the district’s use of video, see the story on page 14.)

Another new resource that has teachers and students abuzz is an online library management system that connects the libraries at all 300-plus schools within a single, centralized catalog. Last year, district officials rolled out Follett Software Co.’s Destiny system to all of their schools–and trained each school librarian in its use–in just six months. And already it’s had a huge impact, according to Brody.

“It’s literally changing the way our libraries are functioning–and this is just right out of the box,” he said excitedly. “My prediction is that, in the next few years, you’re going to see the whole concept of libraries change.”

Students and teachers can use the system to search for resources related to the concepts they’re studying. Besides a list of book titles and summaries from the district’s own library collections, the system also returns a list of web sites that have been pre-selected by Follett educators as appropriate to the topic at hand. In addition, each site contains information about which grade levels it’s most appropriate for. As a result, teachers and students no longer must rely on Google searches that turn up thousands of non-related hits, Brody noted.

The system also tells users how many copies of library books or other resources are available both locally and off-site, in other schools. Plus, it’s tied into the district’s student information system, Pearson School Systems’ SASI, so librarians have real-time access to student information. This is key in a district with as much student mobility as Clark County has, Brody said; school librarians can see instantly if a student who has transferred to their building still owes a book at his or her old school, for example.

Having the district’s library system on a central server means individual librarians don’t have to back up the system every night. Brody says this has saved Clark County an estimated 750 hours a week in librarian staff time–time that can now be deployed more efficiently, by helping teachers and students. “I’m a hero to the librarians,” he says with a chuckle. Implementing a centralized system also has eliminated issues of inequity among the district’s schools and has saved space on individual school servers.

As nice as these improved efficiencies are, Brody sees even greater potential for the system.

“My vision is, why not tie unitedstreaming into it, too?” he said, referring to the district’s collection of instructional video clips from Discovery Education. “Why should we have unitedstreaming over here, and the Follett Destiny system over here?” Then, when a student searches for resources on, say, dinosaurs, the system would return a list of books on dinosaurs, “or you can go to these web sites–or you can click here and get a film or video snippet.”

Brody concluded: “It’s all the things I dreamed about 30 years ago–and they’re all in our grasp now.”

Greater accountability

Another new system implemented just last year, ETS Pulliam’s Instructional Data Management System (IDMS), puts longitudinal achievement data for every student in the district into the hands of teachers, so they can make better-informed decisions about each child’s instructional needs.

District officials worked with a local company called Interactive Technologies of Nevada to get the system up and running, Brody said–but much of it was configured in-house. The system crunches data from standardized test scores, and it also analyzes the results from interim assessments in subjects such as math and science, to help school and district staff members determine each student’s areas of weakness and develop a plan to address these areas.

IDMS is just one example of how Clark County school leaders are using technology to achieve greater accountability. Another is the district’s use of an online system for professional development tracking and registration.

Clark County uses a system from Pathlore, which also supplies the Navy with its professional development tracking system, Brody said. All 30,000-plus staff members throughout all levels of the school system–from cafeteria workers and bus drivers to teachers–are using the online system, which keeps track of how many hours of training each is receiving toward recertification or other professional goals.

Like its other technology initiatives, the district’s use of data to shape its staff development efforts and student instruction is paying off.

Take, for instance, its use of data to target students who are in danger of flunking out. Within two weeks of flunking a course, students who are just a few credits shy of graduating receive a package in the mail with information about the district’s various distance-education offerings. By focusing extra attention on these “credit-deficient” students, Clark County officials reportedly have lowered the district’s dropout rate a full percentage point.

“That is a pretty astonishing thing,” said Tom Axtell, general manager of public television station KLVX, which is operated by the district. “When you look at the earning power of an extra 1 percent of all the kids who are enrolled per year … that really is a fantastic economic impact we’re making community-wide, as well as in the life of that one kid.”

Keys to success

Such quantifiable results are one of the keys to Clark County’s success with technology.

“Our board supports technology because board members have seen technology achieve results–because we have quantified our results, and we communicate these to the board,” Axtell explained. He added that there have been times when things haven’t always worked as planned, but district officials were forthright with the board, which helped develop a sense of trust that, in turn, has led to further support.

“There is this attitude that the money will be there if you can prove [technology] works,” Axtell said, “but it will go away immediately” if it doesn’t.

Brody picks up this theme and expands on it:

“There’s an inherent belief in our district that technology can help,” he says, “but we can’t do any of this without the help of the school board. The board has supported everything the district has done.”

To hear the principal players tell it, support is a key theme throughout the district’s technology initiatives–from the board on down to teachers, who receive help in integrating technology from “educational computing strategists,” or licensed teachers–one for every middle and high school, and one for every two elementary schools–whose job is to support teachers in their use of classroom technologies.

Colleagues also support one another; there is a willingness to collaborate among departments, district officials say, with the technology specialists and the instructional teams working together to achieve a common goal. That’s an occurrence you don’t always see in large school systems, Brody notes.

Brody is quick to share the credit for Clark County’s success with other key leadership personnel, including Axtell; Christy Falba, director of K-12 math, science, and instructional technology; and Jhone Ebert, director of K-12 magnet programs, including the district’s Virtual High School.

He also adds that there is a real “entrepreneurial spirit” at Clark County, where change is encouraged. Perhaps it’s because of the district’s tremendous growth, which constantly requires the influx of new people with different backgrounds and ideas–keeping district leaders from falling into the “same-as-we’ve-always-done-it” mentality. But wherever it stems from, this willingness to take risks is supported by the environment Brody has sought to create.

“I think one of the things I’ve done is I’ve created an infrastructure that allows people to feel comfortable moving forward with their technology ideas,” he said. “They know that technology is not a passing phase, that it’s here, that they’re going to be supported. We have tech refreshment programs where it’s not going to be 12 years before your technology is replaced. It may not be as quick as you’d like, but … there’s a stable technology infrastructure that allows that entrepreneurial spirit to rise.”

Besides this entrepreneurial spirit, there is also this sense in Clark County that if “you get knocked off your horse, you sort of dust yourself off, you get up, and you go to it again,” Brody said.

Axtell characterized this spirit as a “Western boomtown optimism,” explaining that with the frenetic pace of expansion “we can barely cope, so if technology can actually get us over a hump, we’re willing to try something.” But if an initiative can’t prove its worth, “it goes away.”

He concluded: “There’s a very clear sense of why we’re [using technology], and you’ve got to perform. And I think that’s very exciting.”

Dennis Pierce is the managing editor of eSchool News.

Dennis Pierce

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