Leveraging the E-rate's Power
The schools here may serve the poorest students in Connecticut, but they also boast one of the most impressive district-based communications systems in the country.
A new fiber-optic loop connects the district's 36 schools and administrative buildings, as well as the city's libraries, and can handle data at blazing speeds.
"We've gone from the Flintstones to the Jetsons" in two years, says Michael Vasquenza, the director of the district's management-information services.
And, thanks in large part to the federal E-rate program, they've done so while spending almost none of the district's money.
Just before the first application period for the telecommunications subsidy, in 1998, the state awarded the 24,000-student district a special technology grant of $2 million over two years. When the district qualified for E-rate discounts of more than 80 percent, local officials realized they could combine both resources to pay for a $10 million technology project, with the E-rate supplying $8 million.
Arrangements like Hartford's illustrate the financial benefits that needy districts can glean from the E-rate program if they plan well and pursue funding aggressively. Helping such districts gain technological parity with more affluent school systems was one of the main purposes of creating the program.
But anyone expecting to see dramatic changes in Hartford's classrooms as a result of the new aid would be disappointed. As sophisticated as the network may be, its effect so far on students has been minimal.
Hartford's new network is a vast improvement over the early 1980s-era mainframe computer that the district had previously been using. Schools were dialing into it using a 2,400-kilobit modem.
"What we had was unusable for anything," recalls Robert H. Richter, who was hired as the district's manager of networking and telecommunications in 1997. His advice to top district administrators: "Burn it down."
Needy districts can glean from the E-rate program if they plan well and pursue funding aggressively.
Given a mandate to design a new system from scratch, Richter decided to lease some "dark," or unused, fiber- optic strands from Mode One Communications Inc., a small telecommunications carrier, to create a wide-area network that crisscrosses the city. The network, called the Hartford Educational and Library Private Network, or HELPNet, uses asynchronous-transfer-mode switching, which provides the capability for districtwide videoconferencing and video-based distance learning.
Hartford's strategy was different from that of most districts, which typically lease a certain amount of "bandwidth"—the rate at which data streams across a network— not the cables themselves. Leasing the cables involved high up-front costs, totaling $3.3 million, but then just $80,000 a year. That way, Richter says, Hartford's network has much greater bandwidth than it would have otherwise, and it won't be financially vulnerable if funding for the E-rate program ever gets cut.
For the second phase of the project, Richter has installed an Internet protocol, or IP, telephone system, which will operate over the district's network or the Internet.
That system cost $4 million, much of which is eligible for E-rate discounts, though the IP phones themselves are not. The idea is to use the fiber network for all telephoning between district buildings, dramatically reducing the need for standard phone lines.
"We estimate 50 percent of our calls are internal only," Richter says. "This will save us a ton of money over the long haul."
When asked why the Hartford schools need so much bandwidth, Richter says, "If you've got big pipes, you can do distance learning."
But distance learning is still several years away, he acknowledges.
That fact underscores the main drawback to Hartford's experience with the E-rate so far. While the program permits administrative uses of the subsidized technology, those uses are supposed to be secondary to the core purpose of improving teaching and learning in the classroom. It's been the other way around in Hartford.
One reason, Vasquenza says, is that "some [schools] have tremendous numbers of computers, others don't," because the district has traditionally allowed schools to make many of their own spending decisions.
|One of the main purposes of E-rate is to help poorer districts gain technological parity with more affluent school systems.|
And without computers, which the E-rate doesn't pay for, students can't take advantage of the network.
Hartford officials hope to remedy that problem by assigning every high school student a laptop or other computing device within four years, building on a pilot program now under way. They also plan to provide each classroom in grades 4, 6, and 8 with at least four computers linked to the HELPNet over the next two years, and to expand a program that sends refurbished used computers to students' homes.
At that point, officials say, the network will really pay off academically.
"It's much easier and faster to make administrative changes than to make academic changes," Richter says. "Look at the number of administrators versus the numbers of faculty and staff. However, our goal always has been to improve teaching and learning of kids."
Besides, he adds, "if we can make the administration more efficient and cost-effective, that will free up time and money for academic resources."
Vol. 20, Issue 3, Pages 17-18