Housed in a former elementary school and tucked away in a quiet suburban neighborhood in Fairfax County, the campus of the Nancy F. Sprague Technology Center seems an unlikely place for a modern technological marvel.

Walking through the green-tiled hallways, past a row of old aluminum lockers, I’m still not convinced. This is the epicenter of one of the nation’s most technologically advanced school systems? I ask myself, keeping quiet long enough to give my hosts the benefit of the doubt. It certainly doesn’t look like anything special.

We come to a door. I look up and hear our tour guide, Donna Franklin, coordinator of the school district’s Multimedia Service Center, say in a whisper, “And this … is Master Control.”

Before I even walk through the door, I’m already thinking: Unbelievable.

In front of us, a woman sits staring up at a giant terminal on which several images appear. A computer screen flashes in the foreground, and she reaches for the keyboard, punching some buttons. Multicolored lights–reds and greens, blues–flash in my periphery. Servers and processors hum with activity. In a matter of seconds, we’ve stepped from an unremarkable office building into a room that resembles a scaled-down version of NASA’s Mission Control.

Franklin doesn’t say a word. She just stands there, watching, as we take it all in.

Awe and surprise, she would tell us later, are not uncommon reactions for first-time visitors to the Sprague Center, which serves as a central hub for the production, development, and delivery of all education-related multimedia content for the Fairfax County Public Schools’ more than 240 schools and office buildings.

Among its many attributes, the center boasts a professional-grade television production studio, complete with video and sound mixing rooms, and the appropriately named “Master Control,” the main distribution engine behind every piece of audio and video content produced and broadcast by the school system.

Instead of a tape-based system, where video must be recorded and then edited by members of a production crew in the confines of a special video editing room equipped with tape decks, Fairfax County uses optical disc technology, which lets producers take images recorded on disc and edit them directly on their desktop computer, using video editing software.

The finished product then can be sent from the desktop directly to producers in Master Control, where it can be automatically inserted into the programming lineup.

The transition to disc and digital media has allowed for a lot more “flexibility and efficiency” in production, says Franklin: “It’s much better than carrying all those tapes around.”

Eventually, she said, the goal is to have a system in place where producers can edit the video and then drag-and-drop the finished program directly into the production queue from their desktop, though Fairfax isn’t quite there yet.

With its staff of experienced producers–whose resumes include stints with local television stations, and at least one Emmy Award-winning broadcast network–the FCPS Multimedia Service Center has created and produced an array of award-winning educational videos for use by teachers in the classroom and for distribution to the community via the district’s two open cable access channels.

A quick glance through the FCPS program catalog reveals titles such as “America on the Move,” a historical documentary about the evolution of the transportation system; “In Other Words,” a public broadcast program produced entirely in Spanish; “Good Thinking,” a documentary-style production highlighting the impact of school system boosters and volunteers throughout the community; “School Scene,” a news broadcast featuring innovative programs underway at area schools; and “Meet the Author,” a periodic in-house television special that features Fairfax County students with award-winning children’s authors. Guests have included Lemony Snicket, the eccentric children’s book writer made famous by his A Series of Unfortunate Events; long-time children’s book author R.L. Stine; and many others.

In 2005, the district received 11 Telly Awards for its original programming. The Tellys, often referred to as the Emmys of non-broadcast television, are among the most sought-after awards in the television, commercial, and video industry, contends Franklin. Since 2001, the district reportedly has won 38 such awards.

Though Franklin attributes much of the center’s national recognition to its staff, which she dubbed “quite an accomplished group,” she believes the programs resonate with students, not for their professional appearance, but because they are made with input from classroom teachers.

“It’s really important to understand that our producers do many types of programming,” she said. “But no matter what type of programming it is, we always consult first with the educators … We rely on the educators’ expertise to know how to reach our audience.”

That’s no small task in a district the size of Fairfax County. With 163,500 students, FCPS is Virginia’s largest school system, and the 12th largest in the nation.

With a district that size, Franklin says, it’s nearly impossible to meet the needs of schools with in-house programming alone. Though the district employs one senior producer and eight full-time producers who work with support staff to create original programming, the Sprague Center also is outfitted with five high-powered satellite dishes used to pull educational content worthy of distribution from other sources, including the U.S. Department of Education, the Annenberg Foundation, the Classic Arts Network, and other providers of educational video and content for use in schools.

Of course, she explains, the school district can’t just snatch any program it wants off the open airwaves. Thanks to copyright protections and other broadcasting rules, FCPS must be very careful about how it uses and distributes these third-party programs.

To avoid any confusion and cut down on the risk of inadvertent copyright infringement, the district has retained the services of an electronic media specialist.

“It’s the job of the electronic media specialist to scour the airwaves looking for free content that we can use on the network,” says Franklin, who added that Fairfax, like other districts, has “a limited budget” for original programming.

The funding for many of these in-house projects, she says, comes from a long-standing franchise agreement with regional cable television provider Cox Communications, as well as the district’s ongoing pursuit of federal and state grants. But money also is made available through a variety of venture partnerships with such organizations as the National Air and Space Museum, the National Zoo, NASA, and others.

And the programs aren’t for the benefit of Fairfax students alone.

Aware of the fact that other districts might not have the resources to produce and create their own educational programming, FCPS endeavors to make much of its original content available via satellite and the internet to other school systems around the world.

Through the Fairfax Network, first launched in 1992, the district produces and distributes as many as 24 programs a year. Each program, selected by a committee of curriculum specialists, librarians, and teachers, is broadcast free of charge to participating schools on specific dates throughout the school year. Programming guides and registration information are available through the district, or on the network’s web site (see link below).

Within the county, teachers, students, and others who wish to view these programs can do so simply by turning on their cable television sets and flipping to Channel 21, one of two local stations operated by the district. Outside of Fairfax, however, schools must register online for the programs and tap into the broadcast via satellite, a process that can be done by way of their own dish, if they have one, or through a feed

provided by a local broadcast com-pany.

The district’s second open channel, Channel 25, features a lineup of educational content downloaded by satellite from other sources, although that programming is not available across the larger Fairfax Network.

To date, Franklin says, as many as 25,000 registered schools are capable of receiving a feed for any program beamed across the network. That number dropped to as few as 9,000 a few years back when the county experimented with the idea of charging for access to its content. But, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Education and a number of other outside partnerships, Franklin says, access to these programs is–and likely will remain–free to schools. CM


Fairfax Network