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Building a Fast Track

A look at how one district implemented a new IT network to save time and money

Problem: Without a modern and efficient network infrastructure, teachers and administrators at Memphis (Tenn.) City Schools were spending excessive time completing reports, leaving less time to improve educational processes and assist students. The lag in technology left students to rely mainly on textbooks and isolated dial-up Internet that did not afford them the same opportunities as students in other districts, says Jim Long, principal at Craigmont High School.

Solution: Administrators at Memphis City Schools realized that with 118,000 students in 182 schools, they needed a more effective way to circulate information throughout the district and provide students with better learning tools. The district partnered with XO Communications and IBM to implement an improved IT infrastructure and managed hosting solution that sped up administrative tasks and left more time, money and resources for students.

The district's local area network had been in place since the mid- 1980s. Every school was connected, but "all that system offered was mainframe connectivity," says James Smith,

The district is saving $700,000 annually because it does not have to pay 13 IT technicians to monitor the network.

executive IT director at Memphis City Schools. There was minimal Internet access in some schools, and it was not cohesive. Documents, such as budget and student performance reports, were typically run once a month.

On a tight budget, administrators did not want a service that required a large initial investment. Memphis was eligible for government E-rate funding, saving them 90 percent of the cost to install the system. However, the district still had to maintain and monitor the network. It opted for a pay-as-you-go service, similar to a utility.

XO Communications provided the network, while IBM assisted in network design and project management during implementation, completed in 2001. The district uses a managed hosting solution for daily maintenance.

Delivering Interesting Lessons

Today, the district has greater Web access than before, says Smith, with six drops in every classroom and fast Internet connections at every workstation. Because many textbooks now come with CDs and Internet links, students now have access to multimedia tools.

Joy Whitehead, Cordova Middle School principal, says seventh-grade biology teachers use virtual dissection to prepare their students before actual dissection. "Our students are computer literate at a very young age," Whitehead says. "Technology engages them better than giving them a book and telling them to read a chapter."

The network has "opened up the world of distance learning," says Smith. Students can take classes that, before, could not have been offered due to low demand, such as Russian language.

Getting Student Data Quickly

Teachers and administrators have instant access to student performance records, attendance records and lesson- planning tools. "Teachers have more access ... to pull up info on student assessment and student achievement that they didn't have access to before," Smith says. They can easily look up records of a student transferring to their school from somewhere else in the district.

Electronic data is circulated throughout the district quickly and efficiently. Performance reports are no longer outdated when teachers receive them, so students get help right away. Reports that once took principals two weeks are now completed in 30 minutes, giving them more time to supervise teachers and concentrate on educational programs and processes. Not only is Memphis City Schools saving time, the district is also saving money. In the end, savings total $700,000 annually because the district does not have to pay 13 IT technicians to monitor the network. By integrating the telephone system with the network, the district saved more money while giving teachers the added benefit of having a telephone in each classroom.

Michelle Lawler is editorial assistant.