Not resting on his laurels

A former eSchool News Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award winner has continued to find new technologies to reduce teachers’ workload, ensure equitable access to educational resources, and increase student achievement since he was honored for those same accomplishments in 2005.

Larry Buchanan, superintendent of the Grant Joint Union High School District (grades 7-12) and Del Paso Heights Elementary School District (grades K-6) in Sacramento, Calif., says Grant’s newly installed wireless gigabit microwave network will help the district meet its goals. With 1,000 megabits of data transfer capacity per second, plus two other existing back-up networks, the infrastructure needed to fulfill Buchanan’s vision for instructional delivery is near completion.

“We have triple redundancy,” Buchanan said. “That’s the minimum necessary for a full-on production education environment. If we lose the network, we lose teaching minutes–and we can’t have that.”

In addition to its new wireless point-to-point microwave network, strategically placed between district buildings, Grant operates two landlines, most of which are fiber. If a connection goes down, the district always has a back-up network in place. The additional networks also are used for load balancing, or bandwidth management, to achieve optimal efficiency.

The district has two feeds out to the internet. One is gigabit Ethernet, and the other is a T3 line. Buchanan says the district’s network has to be a powerhouse, because teachers rely heavily on it to deliver educational content to their classrooms and to access student information systems.

Such an infrastructure wouldn’t have been possible without the eRate, the $2.25 billion-a-year program that provides telecommunications discounts to schools and libraries. Since Buchanan became superintendent of the district seven years ago, it has received $25 million in eRate discounts.

From the very beginning, Buchanan’s administration planned to have matching funds available for its eRate applications five to seven years in advance, so it could always take advantage of the program. Buchanan advises other school leaders to do the same. The high school’s network is designed primarily to transmit video to the classroom, Buchanan explained. “There are lots of ways to use video to enhance the delivery of a lesson,” he said.

Although bandwidth-switching capability for video conferencing is available in every classroom, use of the technology isn’t ubiquitous yet. As a result, the district has several programs to encourage the use of video in the classroom.

The Connections Program, for example, fosters team teaching between classrooms. Faculty members teach a series of group lessons via video conferencing, and at the end, the students go on a field trip together. Students from different schools get to know each other and meet in a non-threatening environment. Buchanan said it has proved to be an effective integration tool between Sacramento’s north and south neighborhoods, breaking down walls and increasing communications among groups of students that wouldn’t mix otherwise.

In addition, teachers are offered mini-grants to purchase access to commercial video conferencing programs. The district also subscribes to two video-on-demand services that teachers use to introduce new topics and concepts.

A 30-year veteran of public education who taught sixth grade before switching to administration, Buchanan advocates giving teachers choices when it comes to what classroom technologies they can use.

“Getting everyone to use one tool isn’t going to work,” he said. “It takes a lot of tools to meet the variety of educational needs we have.”

Giving teachers choices results in a more excited, motivated staff, he added. There is at least one computer in each district classroom, all with Windows 2000 or XP. Teachers also have access to an LCD projector, sound amplification system, document camera, and multimedia presentation cart, as well as a wireless InterWrite SchoolPad that allows them to teach from anywhere in the classroom and an InterWrite PRS system that students can use to answer questions.

The InterWrite system increases classroom participation, because students have to weigh in on the classroom discussion. “We need to keep them focused and on task, and just using talking heads isn’t going to do it,” Buchanan said.

Grant High School has moved its curriculum software to Linux Terminal Server so students can access the software from home using older, refurbished district computers. “What I’m really excited about is that technology can be a great equalizer for students who come from disadvantaged situations,” Buchanan said. “We see that the direction we have taken is working for us. We’re showing that integrated technology infrastructure is essential to educators.”

eSchool News Staff

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