Tech companies lead Gulf Coast school restoration

Intel Corp. is organizing a massive disaster recovery effort in the Gulf Coast areas affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, with the goal of helping schools rebuild their technology infrastructures and “renew their learning environments for the 21st century.” Cisco Systems and BellSouth Corp. also are among the technology providers with school restoration programs under way.

Intel has invited several educational technology companies and nonprofit organizations to join the effort. Among the companies already confirmed are Futurekids, which will donate professional development services to the affected schools; SMART Technologies, which will provide interactive whiteboards; and Scantron Corp., which will offer testing and assessment technologies. The State Educational Technology Directors Association, the U.S. Department of Education, and eSchool News also are among the program participants.

Executives from these organizations and other project participants will meet in Atlanta on Dec. 13 to further plan and discuss the initiative.

In a message to companies invited to the Dec. 13 forum, Terry Smithson, education strategist and marketing manager for Intel Americas, said the effort hopefully can be used as a framework for future disaster recovery situations by documenting the process from the very first step.

The day-long meeting in Atlanta will focus on how to help schools that were totally destroyed in the storm, schools that sustained wind or water damage, Gulf Coast schools that have absorbed displaced students, and the more than 100,000 students who left the region and took up residence in other areas.

Smithson was unavailable for comment before press time. But in his message to project invitees, he said the consortium’s goal is to “rebuild 180 schools in enhanced 21st-century format,” as well as provide support and guidance to schools that have taken in displaced students and educators. This support will include mobile computer carts with curriculum support for displaced students, as well as professional development and educator purchase programs for displaced teachers. A toll-free number will be set up for school leaders to call and request assistance.

Other relief efforts

Intel’s massive initiative comes on the heels of other recent relief efforts by companies such as Cisco Systems and BellSouth Corp.

In Mississippi, a $2.5 million grant from the BellSouth Foundation allowed the Mississippi Department of Education to offer free online high school classes through the Mississippi Online Learning Institute. Most districts in the state were open by mid-October.

Cisco said it would donate $40 million to schools affected by the hurricanes. The first $20 million will go to southern Mississippi schools to provide internet access and other technology services. The schools will use the money to improve technology, online curriculum, and professional development. The other $20 million will go to schools in other states and will be made available over the next two to three years, and specific decisions about where that money will be spent will be made later, said a Cisco spokeswoman.

John Chambers, president and chief executive officer of Cisco, announced the donations in October at the annual fall meeting of the Mississippi Economic Council, the state chamber of commerce. Chambers said a Mississippi woman whose family lost everything in the hurricane inspired his company’s donation.

Cisco will provide a wireless mesh network in certain communities. This advanced technology is a highly secure, scalable, broadband network infrastructure that will enable new communications applications for schools to better serve the community, Cisco said. According to the company, the mesh networks will extend the educational and accountability resources of school systems across their communities wirelessly, enabling unprecedented levels of collaboration, cooperation, and learning for students, teachers, and parents.

Such a network already has been established in New Orleans. To help boost its stalled economy, New Orleans is offering what it calls the nation’s first free wireless network owned and run by a major city.

In announcing the network, Mayor Ray Nagin on Nov. 29 said the system would benefit residents and small businesses who still can’t get their internet service restored over the city’s washed-out telephone network, while showing the nation “that we are building New Orleans back.”

The system started operation in the central business district and French Quarter. It’s to be available throughout the city at no charge to residents in about a year.

Hundreds of similar projects in other cities have met with stiff opposition from phone and cable TV companies, which have poured money into legislative bills aimed at blocking competition from government agencies–including a state law in Louisiana that needed to be sidestepped for the New Orleans project.

The city had been working on a Wi-Fi network before Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, and police already were using the wireless system to monitor street security cameras. Nagin said Katrina, which knocked out communications throughout the region, frustrating coordination of relief efforts, showed the need for a more advanced system.

In the event of another storm, the network will be able to connect telephone calls via the internet. “What we learned is a network like this is important as a backup in case all other communications fail,” the mayor said.

The system uses hardware mounted on street lights. Most of the $1 million in equipment was donated by Intel, Tropos Networks Inc., and Pronto Networks. The companies also plan to donate equipment for the citywide expansion. Tropos is connecting the system to the internet at no charge.

The network uses “mesh” technology to pass the wireless signal from pole to pole, rather than each Wi-Fi transmitter being plugged directly into a physical network cable. That way, laptop users will be able to connect even in areas where the wireline phone network will take time to restore.

Nagin said the service will remain free for residents and businesses after the state of emergency ends.

The network’s announcement came one day after the first New Orleans public school reopened its doors.

Students returning to Ben Franklin Elementary School on Nov. 28 were greeted by welcome signs over the door and in the hallways.

“The main thing is, the kids want to be home,” said Tony Collins, who brought his fifth-grade son, James. Collins has been staying in Baton Rouge since the storm and will drop off James–who formerly attend a different school–every day at Ben Franklin.

Just after 8 a.m., students in kindergarten through sixth grade began arriving at the school, which is in an area that escaped most of the storm’s force.

“I’m glad to be back,” said George Lee III, a 9-year-old who walked in with his mother, Darlene Thomas.

“It’s exciting to have him back in school,” said Thomas, who must catch two buses each day to get her son to the school from their mid-city home.

“This signals that school is up and running, and that’s a good thing,” said Heidi Daniels, a members of the Orleans Parish School Board.

The importance of Franklin’s opening is largely symbolic, said Leslie Jacobs, another board member. Because the semester is almost over, Jacobs said she has told parents that they should keep their children in whatever schools they currently attend until the holiday break.

“I think the real significance comes in January,” she said. “There’s a limit to what can be done three weeks before the end of the semester. In January, I think there are 17 schools slated to be opened.”

Assessing the damage

As the recovery efforts continue throughout the Gulf Coast, school district leaders are working to restore technology resources in every school, including replacing computers, setting up distance-learning centers, and refiling for eRate funding. Along with cleansing and recording student enrollment data, education officials also are assessing the status of their technology infrastructure, such as wiring, internet connections, routers, and computers.

In New Orleans, officials quickly recovered the data system that collected financial, human-resource, and payroll information using backup tapes.

“Data from the entire New Orleans Public Schools had to be recovered–we restored five years of data,” said Anthony Treccapelli, a managing director with financial turnaround firm Alvarez and Marsal and the acting chief information officer for the New Orleans Public Schools. Once this system was operational, he said, pre-Katrina payroll information was sorted and employees were paid.

The company also recovered the district’s student information system (SIS) using backup tapes. “We had to run the recovered SIS out of a satellite office, because of the urgency of starting to track our pre-enrollment registration,” Treccapelli said.

eMail service and the New Orleans Public Schools web site have been restored, and Treccapelli said the company is currently looking for a low-cost, K-12 based enterprise software package that will help with human-resource, accounting, and payroll processes when schools are reopened.

Recovery efforts also include physically tracking and documenting every technology product in schools, determining what products are salvageable, and moving those products to a central, safe storage area–a massive undertaking for a city the size of New Orleans. Computers, servers, network gear, routers, and videoconferencing equipment are all being evaluated. The city also is beginning to refile for eRate funding.

Alvarez and Marsal employees took up office in a New Orleans school building, but will soon have to move to make room for the students who will resume attending classes–an encouraging sign, Treccapelli said.

In Mississippi, which has welcomed the assistance of Cisco and others, Hank Bounds, the state’s superintendent of education, said Katrina destroyed 16 schools, severely damaged 24, and caused less extensive damage to 263 others. The storm also destroyed about $40 million worth of computers and other technology equipment, $40 million worth of textbooks, and $235 million in teaching supplies in the public schools, he said.

(For a look at how one Mississippi school system has adjusted to life after the storm, see the accompanying story.)

Contract controversy

The Gulf Coast recovery efforts are taking place amid a backdrop of controversy over how some contracts have been awarded to rebuild structures that were destroyed by the storms.

An Oct. 19 report by the Associated Press (AP) explored the contracts that have been awarded to various companies by the federal government for Hurricane Katrina cleanup in the Gulf Coast region. AP’s report said that at least four of the 10 biggest Katrina-related contracts were being reviewed for possible waste and abuse.

All 10 companies are located outside the affected area, and most are politically active and received the work after a limited bidding process, the report said.

“How can the government say it is serious about reconstructing the Gulf Coast and edge out small and minority-owned businesses?” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Homeland Security. “The only way to make sure the relief funds reach hurricane victims and damaged areas is to be aggressive about oversight.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Army Corps of Engineers, which award the bulk of the Katrina contracts, said they are committed to handing out contracts based on merit and open competition. FEMA also said it would rebid four contracts worth up to $100 million each that were awarded with little or no competition to politically connected firms. Priority will be given to small and minority-owned businesses.

Still, many other firms that landed Katrina-related deals valued at $170 million or more will not have to rebid or renegotiate their contracts, because many of “the contracts that were previously awarded without competition are completed or are beyond the point where it would be economically feasible to recompete,” said Larry Orluskie, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, which oversees FEMA.

The New York Times reported that FEMA, under a $40 million no-bid contract to a politically active business, installed 450 portable classrooms across Mississippi at $90,000 each–twice the wholesale price, and almost 60 percent more expensive than the price offered by two small Mississippi businesses.

Critics say these portable classrooms support their case against FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers for “wasteful spending and favoritism” during the Katrina cleanup, estimated at $62 billion.

Several Hurricane Katrina deals are being examined by auditors and Congressional investigators.

Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.


Intel Corp.

Futurekids Inc.

SMART Technologies Inc.

Scantron Corp.

State Educational Technology Directors Association

U.S. Department of Education

Cisco Systems Inc.

BellSouth Corp.

New Orleans Public Schools

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Laura Ascione
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