Faced with 30 years of student underachievement, the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) needed to implement fundamental changes in its existing teaching methods. Over this period, few new tools were made available to support the improved education of its 200,000 students, many of them inner-city and underprivileged. When SDP failed to meet state standards, it determined to make technology the cornerstone of a new program that would ensure “no child is left behind.”
SDP recognized that network-based services, innovative new teaching applications, and partnerships with leading educational and research institutions across the country would deliver a new arsenal of tools to drive school reform and improve student achievement. Leveraging the Federal E-Rate program-whereby schools are provided funds to implement advanced telecommunications technologies-SDP built its own optical Ethernet (OE) network to which “every child is connected.”
Prior to the OE deployment, SDP connected its 264 schools with a Frame Relay network-which was pushed to its limits. “We were really stretching the bandwidth capacity of our network,” recalls Robert Westall, SDP’s executive director of technology services. “Controlled pilot programs clearly demonstrated that the district lacked adequate capacity to implement new and advanced curricular, instructional, and operational applications.”
But any new network implementation would have to satisfy several key requirements. First, it had to provide greater bandwidth capacity than SDP’s existing Frame Relay network. Second, it needed to support large volumes of native Ethernet traffic and consolidate multiple types of traffic. Finally, the new network had to operate within very strict budgetary guidelines.
To satisfy these requirements, SDP opted for an OE network that uses the Gigabit-Ethernet capabilities on Nortel’s Ethernet Routing Switch 8600 and Ethernet-over-SONET via resilient packet ring (RPR) technology on an Optical Metro 3500 next-generation SONET platform, also from Nortel.
The new network consists of four SONET rings comprising multiple next-generation SONET nodes connecting all facilities. The Ethernet routing switches connect to the SONET network at each of the ring sites and also route traffic between rings. The Nortel OE equipment supports both 2.5- and 10-Gbit/sec interfaces.
“We were looking for a solution with the flexibility and scalability to meet the network growth we anticipate over the next five to ten years,” notes Westall. “We’re very confident we now have such a network in place.”
As a state-run school district, budgetary constraints drove many decisions. While the initial deployment required a significant upfront investment, the OE network was engineered as a cost-neutral replacement of the existing T1 Frame Relay network without increasing recurring operational expenses.
Ethernet over RPR allows SDP to cost-effectively consolidate its voice, video, and data traffic over a single network. Two RPRs are used to handle Internet, e-mail, and intranet-related traffic, while a third is used for video multicast and streaming video for professional development and distance learning. A fourth RPR is used for voice and security surveillance traffic.
Creating a virtual LAN in the metro area and transporting Ethernet end-to-end also enables SDP to avoid costly protocol conversions and remove hundreds of routers from its network, resulting in a cost-efficient, less complex network architecture.
Ethernet routing switches located at each of the schools uplink voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) traffic from IP PBXs in the schools, and the new OE network transports that VoIP traffic across the network. Within the schools, VoIP centralizes voice messaging, expanding this service from a few hundred mailboxes to all 15,000 teachers and staff members.
Based on these advantages, SDP fully expects the network to pay for itself within three years. “Not only has the OE network met our budgetary constraints, but the bandwidth available through the network would have required a tenfold higher cost in competing network solutions,” adds Westall.
With the new network, SDP has surpassed the bandwidth requirements needed to evolve its instructional and curricula delivery processes. Its OE network delivers 1,000 times the capacity of the previous network while providing each school with more than a gigabit per second of bandwidth.
Leveraging the high-speed, bandwidth-rich network and partnerships with private sector companies, teachers are taking learning to the next level using more sophisticated instructional tools. SDP has implemented several innovative programs, including:
• Instructional management system: An instructional management system enables teachers to develop a large part of their curricula online, which they can modify in real time and share with peers around the globe. Students can then connect to web-based lesson plans and online textbooks to complete class work from home. Moreover, teachers now conduct real-time, online examinations. As teachers explain concepts, they can administer online exams to test student comprehension. Exams are scored and results returned instantly, allowing for immediate assessment of student understanding. The teacher then is given specific suggestions for remediation targeted to the individual student. If overall class scores are low, the system offers suggestions for supplemental material. “Twenty-five percent of students get lost in the system because we don’t know that they are having learning problems,” admits Vincent DeTolla, executive director of educational technology, SDP. “Technology helps us close the gap by identifying problem areas, prescribing the correct remedial programs, and delivering the resources in the classroom to correct the problem.”
• Higher learning: SDP uses its OE network to leverage diverse resources, including plans to participate in Internet2, a collaboration of more than 100 universities for the development of networked learning and research opportunities. Streaming video and video conferencing will allow students to collaborate with leading universities and educational partners in the area. Students will have real-time access to events, lectures, and experiments. Teachers also take advantage of advanced professional development opportunities provided by partner institutions. They can access the network from their classrooms and attend classes offered at universities throughout the state.
• Virtual schooling: High-speed transport from the school district to student homes, juvenile centers, and other institutions brings education to at-risk and special needs students, ensuring that educational opportunities are available to all students, regardless of location or circumstance.
• Parent/teacher collaboration: Student records, including performance, attendance, exams, etc., are available online, enabling parents to monitor their children’s progress. E-mail systems and advanced voicemail allow teachers to interact with parents on a regular basis.
• Attendance monitoring: Smart-card technology is used to track student attendance. Students “swipe in” as they enter the school, and a computer accesses each student’s information from a networked database. Attendance information is shared with teachers and administrators so they can follow up on late/absent students. With such a large student population, it is common to call 20,000 to 30,000 students/night. Student information now is linked to the phone system, allowing SDP to automate the call process. Additionally, IP-based surveillance cameras are positioned to enhance security in schools.
• Operational efficiencies: Creating operational efficiencies was a key component of SDP’s plan to control budgetary costs. Its OE communications infrastructure has facilitated distributed printing/copying of report cards and pay stubs/attendance reports, cafeteria point-of-sale, a biometric time-management system, an automated work-order and maintenance system, web-based procurement, and unified messaging and collaboration.
SDP has taken steps toward improving the quality of education offered to its student body by making an OE network the foundation for innovative learning opportunities. This pioneering model serves as a valuable benchmark for other large education institutions challenged by the growing needs of their student populations.
Dan Young is vice president of industry solutions for Nortel (Ottawa, Ontario). He may be reached via the company’s web site at www.nortel.com.