”One issue for rural school districts is they haven’t had the access like they do along the I-35 corridor, where there are more people.” – Todd Davis
> In 2012, the term “Information Superhighway” sounds archaic, but it wasn’t long ago that much of rural Texas had few broadband Internet on-ramps. Many smaller communities and school districts were relegated to slow-speed dialup connections. Advances in technology, wireless Internet and teamwork have changed the game for school districts in West Texas.
“One issue for rural school districts is they haven’t had the access like they do along the Interstate 35 corridor, where there are more people,” says Todd Davis, technology coordinator for the Region 17 Education Service Center (ESC) in Lubbock.
In 1997, the ESC established a technology consortium with many of its member school districts to develop a regional integrated telecommunications network. As the Internet became more of a tool for study and education, the consortium acted to bring high-speed access to its rural members.
> The idea sounds easy enough: on the open plains of West Texas, send out wireless Internet on a tower-to-tower network. The difficulty comes from serving an area that could encompass several New England states.
“We realized that when you have a geographical area of nearly 19,000 square miles, we needed to do this as a regional collaborative effort,” says Dr. Kyle Wargo, ESC 17’s executive director. “We were able to negotiate this as a group, rather than each individual district having to negotiate themselves. Being able to negotiate as a single consortium was invaluable.”
To bring its districts up to speed, so to speak, the ESC developed a wireless wide-area network (WAN) and contracted with North Carolina-based Conterra to install the WAN at 40 of the 57 school districts in Region 17. Installation was completed in July 2011 and provides high-speed access to more than 33,000 students.
In addition to general Internet access, the WAN has opened doors to distance learning, professional development and even virtual field trips for students and staff at participating campuses.
“We realized that when you have an area of nearly 19,000 square miles, we needed to do this as a regional collaborative effort.” – Kyle Wargo
“We have a local museum with programs that students can view remotely; they can take virtual field trips to NASA, the Smithsonian, the Texas State Aquarium and others,” Wargo says. “When you think of the cost of taking students to a central location, whether it’s in Lubbock or Austin or wherever, sometimes it’s impractical to do that anymore.”
In addition, video feeds through the network’s Interactive Television, which already existed but has flourished with the WAN completion, have helped thousands of students earn high school and college-level credits, already saving them an estimated $623,000 in college tuition costs.
To help cover the network’s cost, the ESC qualified for available federal E-Rate funding from the Universal Service Administrative Corporation to help cover as much as 81 percent of the costs. For all 40 sites, the monthly tab is $101,800. With the E-Rate program picking up 81 percent, the ESC and its partner schools’ share is just more than $19,000.
That type of savings for the individual districts means they can tap into a project they likely would not be able to afford on their own. At the same time, a participating district does has to absorb at least some of the cost, if it’s going to use the service.
“The reason why I think that’s important is that if you’re given something for free, you may not utilize it to the maximum benefit,” Wargo says.
As for the network’s future, it’s secure for now, Wargo says, noting that with the way today’s cutting-edge technology becomes tomorrow’s old news, it will be a challenge to keep up.
“We feel that technology is going to continue to explode, but also that our districts are going to need more capacity,” he says. “That’s going to be most important part for them. We have a five-year commitment to this, and our challenge is going to be to increase the capacity as the need is there.” TR
“We were very excited about the project because our existing bandwidth was just about used up.”
– Phil Warren
In the year since the ESC 17 wireless wide area network’s completion, Shallowater Independent School District has experienced a significant improvement in Internet performance, which has led to more learning opportunities.
“We were very excited about the project because our existing bandwidth was just about used up,” says Superintendent Phil Warren.
Shallowater, just north of Lubbock, previously had access to a T1 Internet connection. But during peak learning periods each day, it was often sluggish and slow to respond, making it nearly impossible to conduct classes taught off-site via video feed, such as dual-credit courses offered through the Region 17 ESC’s Lubbock facility. That has changed.
“It’s been a wonderful tool for us and we use it every day,” Warren says. “Before the network, we tried to schedule those courses early in the day so that teacher activity online didn’t interfere with the bandwidth. Now, we can do it all day if we want to.”
Warren says that, at some point, the Shallowater ISD would have likely attempted to upgrade its bandwidth on its own. But he adds there’s no doubt his district could not have accomplished individually what the ESC and its members did as a group.
“We couldn’t have done it, not to the quality extent of what he have now,” he says. “It’s been a wonderful example of cooperation in a project, and has really opened doors for us to use more and more technology in our district.”
The Comptrollers Financial Allocation Study of Texas (FAST) has identified dozens of Texas school districts that are making efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars. Watch ESC 17 Director Kyle Wargo and others explain how their organization has improved facility and infrastructure planning, shared services and other Smart Practices.
Read more about the Region 17 ESC and its member schools.