Leaving a Wireless Legacy

The Garfield Heights School District wanted to leave a lasting impression with its new high school.

“We wanted it to be good not only for today, but for students attending for the next 100 years,” said superintendent Ronald Victor.

To help create this school of the future in the Cleveland suburb, the district turned to wireless networking technology. The new facility, which officially opened its doors last month, features an 802.11b network. In addition, staff members, including administrators, custodians and coaches, are using wireless IP phones from SpectraLink .

A growing number of schools are looking to wireless networking to enhance learning. While it’s still more common to find Wi-Fi on a college campus than at a high school, that may be beginning to change. According to EduVentures, an educational research firm, U.S. public schools (grades K-12) spent nearly $500 million on wireless technologies in the 2001-2002 school year. That number is expected to grow to $2 billion by the end of this school year.

“We’re seeing more and more schools going with Wi-Fi and putting phones on it,” said Ben Guderian, director of marketing at SpectraLink. “The decision is often about improving teachers’ accessibility to administrators, and with each other. Often times it becomes an emotional issue, making sure people feel more secure in that environment.”

That was certainly the case at Garfield Heights. “It’s for school safety, security, and improved communication,” said Shari Bailey, director of technology for the school district.

The size of the school played a role as well. At 282,000 square feet, Garfield Heights is considerably bigger than the average high school (which is 125,304 square feet, according to American School & University’s Official Education Construction Report). The “campus” consists of two buildings connected by an enclosed glass hallway; the district will begin construction on a third building, a performing arts center, in August.

“The expanse of the [school] is so big, we need to be able to get in touch with people,” Bailey said. “It really made sense for us to do this.”

Cell phones weren’t a viable option, she explained. “The new building is like a fortress. Cell phones really just do not work [inside].”

The wireless network will eventually be extended outside to the football field, so staff members can use the Wi-Fi phones anywhere on the campus. The phones also have a walkie-talkie feature, she noted, which eliminates the need to carry around multiple devices (e.g., a walkie-talkie for inside the school and a cell phone for outside).

Discussions about wireless networking began as early as 2001, when the district was building an addition to its elementary school. Bailey said they had considered Wi-Fi for that building but ultimately decided that it wasn’t necessary.

It made a great deal of sense for the high school, though. In addition to the safety and security issues that prompted the decision to deploy the wireless phones, Bailey said they also considered the benefits of Wi-Fi as a classroom teaching tool. It provides opportunities for “on-demand, timely learning where you have the ability to interact and have feedback from teachers,” she said.

There’s currently one wireless lab in the school that’s being used for an integrated math program. While funds are somewhat limited (Garfield Heights is the lowest-funded district in the county), Bailey said the goal is to begin purchasing more wireless products, starting with laptop cards.

The WLAN was deployed in conjunction with SpectraLink and Altera, which had recently installed a PBX phone system throughout the entire district. After a site survey, 29 Cisco Aironet access points (AP) were placed throughout the campus — 24 in the main classroom building, and five in the adjoining health and physical education building — to ensure redundancy.

So far, Bailey said, the coverage has been adequate for voice calls. “The quality actually is very good.”

There have been a few bumps in the road, though. “It’s a brand-new deployment and we’re still working out the bugs in the system,” Bailey said. “I’d be lying if I told you it was working perfectly, but … I have no doubt that we’ll get it working.”

The problems have largely been configuration issues between the various pieces of equipment. With gear from so many vendors in the mix (APs from Cisco, switches from Fujitsu and Avaya, and the phones from SpectraLink), there’s “a lot of fine tuning and tweaking” involved, she said.

Still, there have been times when it’s all come together. “When everything is working,” she noted, “it’s perfect.”

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