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District Spotlight: Farmington Municipal Schools


We'll occasionally reference school districts in our articles to illustrate concepts or identify how technology can be implemented, and it will be helpful if some general information about the districts is available. We’ll call these articles ‘Spotlights’.

Public school districts in the United States vary greatly in many aspects. The size (in students and geographical distances), available funding, socioeconomic factors of the community, internal leadership, and age of a school district are all important ingredients in how technology is implemented. Here, we’ll learn about some of the districts in the country that are making the most of their technology.

Spotlight on Farmington Municipal Schools

Welcome to Farmington Municipal Schools, located in Farmington, New Mexico. It would be difficult to identify an 'average' school district in our country based on the statistics provided to the government, and our own district doesn't even show up on the radar of the largest 500 districts. At around 10,200 students, our district is the 7th largest out of approximately 90 districts in New Mexico. This is well above the 'average' enrollment from the 2002 US Department of Education census, which indicates that there are a large number of ‘small’ districts out there. We are located in a city of about 43,000 residents where 38% of the households have children under the age of 18. We have 17 regular education schools across the city and employ about 1,400 staff.

Our administration has always been supportive and as we've developed our own technology leadership positions the planning, implementation and support for technology decisions has improved. Over the past 12 years our district has grown from standalone computers and small lab based networks to an interconnected system of over 4,000 computers, more than 50 servers and over 700 IP phones. I'll save the discussion and explanation of the technical concepts for another article in this column and give you a brief overview of the technology in place in our district.

Implementation

When a district implements technology across their systems (e.g. business, instruction, administrative tasks, communication), there are several factors that must be taken into consideration during the planning, implementation and maintenance stages.

Financial impacts, both of the initial costs and the total cost of ownership (TCO), are always among the top issues discussed and evaluated. The lower TCO we could attain by using Apple's hardware and software products was one factor in the decision to standardize on that platform.

The appropriateness of the technology for the business and curriculum of the district should also be closely monitored. All purchases should help the district reach its goals by supporting and being aligned with the objectives of the schools. This alignment should exist across all systems, but it is especially important in technology due to the large amount of money that many districts invest in technology hardware, software and infrastructure.

When staff and students begin to rely upon and use technology, a district is required to invest some time and energy in the implementation of practices and polices for security and safety. There is data that must be secured, but also remain available to appropriate users. There are federal requirements for some security and filtering if federal funds are to be provided (this is true for e-rate funds, for example). Users - both staff and students - need to be protected from external and internal attempts to gain access to sensitive information or files. Some of security and safety measures are based on effective training of staff, and some measures are based on technology tools that help protect the network, district assets and users.

Infrastructure

Farmington Municipal Schools has a wide area network (WAN) consisting mainly of point-to-point T1 connections that handle data, voice and video traffic. Each building in the district has a local area network (LAN) that is a 10/100MB fully switched network. We also have a wireless LAN in place at each school and some of the administrative buildings. This wireless network is an 802.11b/g network that can provide up to 54Mbps bandwidth to wireless clients. Our operating system of choice is Apple's OS X, for both client and server systems, and comprises approximately 98% of our installed OS base. We utilize a centralized authentication system, Apple's Open Directory, with a distributed file storage structure for user data. Each site has at least one authenticating server which is tied to the central server, as well as one file server for staff and one for students. We centralize those services that are best suited to such an installation and distribute those that are best placed at the remote sites.

Our connection to the outside world is a 9Mbps, adjustable rate DS3 that allows us to increase our bandwidth without the need for additional physical connections. Bandwidth is like time and money: No matter how much you have you always want or need more. Our humble introduction to internet access was a 56Kbps lease line, followed by a nice full T1, which was upgraded to two T1 lines working in tandem until we had to make the commitment to a scalable system that provided us with the bulk of the bandwidth we needed for immediate usage.

Systems and Solutions

There are many systems that make our district work, both on the business side and the instruction side. The backbone of our communication system is a Unified Communications system from FirstClass. It provides our e-mail, voicemail, incoming fax, calendaring, collaboration, staff web publishing, e-learning, and application development for staff and students. Part of this communication architecture is our Cisco Voice over IP (VoIP) system. Our VoIP phone system is comprised of over 500 phones and uses the data network for voice. Combining data, voice and video on a single network is called a converged network. FirstClass and our VoIP installation, taken together, is one of the most the most mission critical systems we have, but running a close second is our student information system, PowerSchool. PowerSchool provides us with administrative tools to manage student information, schedule courses, record and track attendance and grades, and give students and parents access to real-time data. It also reinforces the data driven decision making processes of our administrative staff.

We are currently working on the development of a long-term plan to implement a one-to-one laptop initiative, with or without state and federal financial support, and the infrastructure we're building now is designed to support this initiative. One-to-one initiatives are a hot button topic in education, and I'm sure you'll see an article here about that in the future. We have started with small pilot programs for teachers who have made a commitment to integrating technology into their curricula. These teachers are provided with an iBook, projection unit, digital still and video cameras and a cart of iBooks for use by their students. By implementing these smaller programs we are building a foundation, in both staff and students, for the eventual creation of a one-to-one environment in our district.

Support

Our information technology staff is a critical component of our technology implementation. The staff members we have vary greatly in skills, experience and responsibilities. With our centralization of core services, user and workstation security, and remote management tools we are able to allow technical support staff at schools to focus on delivering curriculum and training and to provide a first line of defense for technical support. The more involved tasks of network management, client configuration and maintenance are handled by district level support staff who are responsible for multiple sites. Considering just those staff members providing support as their primary duty, we have an average ratio of one tech for every 300 computers. Restricting this ratio to just those technical staff responsible for higher level support, the numbers get closer to one tech for every 575 computers. As we have increased the number of systems we implement, we've found that an increase in IT staff has been necessary to guarantee effective service for our staff and students. Without our support staff, the complicated network, systems and technology tools in use by our district would be under-utilized and in disrepair.

I feel honored and lucky to be involved in our district's technology administration during this time of technological growth and commitment. Our district has come a long way, and has worked hard to implement the technology we have and to insure that it improves the education we provide to our students. There are many challenges to be faced and I think we're ready to meet them.

Related Links:

Farmington Municipal Schools
http://www.fms.k12.nm.us

FirstClass Division, OpenText Corporation
http://www.firstclass.com

Apple Inc
http://www.apple.com

Cisco Systems, Inc
http://www.cisco.com



Meet Your Macinstructor

Charles Thacker has been working in public education since 1994 as an art
educator, network administrator and most recently as the Chief Technology
Officer for Farmington Municipal Schools. His areas of focus are OS X client and server management in an enterprise environment, automated imaging techniques, unified communications and VoIP in a cross-platform network, with some digital imaging and desktop publishing work when time allows.


 
                          





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