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MUSD goes digital to tune of $20 million

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POSTED February 5, 2014 12:54 a.m.

At many school sites in the Manteca Unified School District, classrooms can’t access educational materials online because they don’t have adequate Internet connection.

But come September, eight schools in the district will be saying goodbye to all that dinosaur technology. Teachers and students will finally be able to get unlimited access to 21st century educational programs available online. The rest of the school sites will follow immediately after that.

Construction of the digital infrastructure that will make all that possible is already under way to the tune of $20 million. The project is called Going Digital. All of the district’s wireless network and connection upgrades are expected to be in place by September for the eight sites, and the rest in quick succession after that, district Information Technology Director Colby Clark told members of the Board of Trustees at their last meeting.

While the wiring of newer structures such as the district office building is “okay” for the digital connections, older school sites’ network infrastructure described by Clark as antiquated will need to be replaced. Some schools’ connectivity structures have either reached the end of their tech life or are close to reaching that phase. Those that are barely alive show “poor wireless performance,” especially when the device is experiencing a heavy load. Others simply have “no room for growth or additional services.”

For this project, the district is partnering with Cisco Systems, a corporation headquartered in San Jose which designs, manufactures and sells networking equipment, Clark said.

The Going Digital project will put Manteca Unified at the “forefront of public education” with teachers and students being able to have wireless access to all the latest and timely education materials and information available online, added Clark. Without that digital connection, all of that are available only through the teachers and through textbooks.

Upgrading the electronic and cable wiring capabilities of the districts’ schools also becomes mandatory with the anticipated implementation of the new Common Core State Standards, the education initiative that details what K-12 students should know when they finish each grade, and establishes consistent education standards throughout the states.

“Fifty percent of my job now is focused on this,” Superintendent Jason Messer said of the $20 million effort to get the school district onto the 21st century digital superhighway and getting the schools ready for the official enforcement of the Common Core standards.

To get to this point of the Going Digital project, all of the district’s school campuses were visited and evaluated as was their cable and wiring needs. Very detailed site drawings were done showing the type and amount of cable that are at the site, and what is needed to get each site up to par. Photographs were also taken showing old installations that are in bad shape.

Sites on the priority list

First to be upgraded will be the data center at the school district office because every campus will be connecting back to the digital hub there, Colby explained, describing the picture in concrete terms as “almost like a hub-and-spoke type of layout.”

Before the school sites’ needs are addressed, the main site at the school district has to be upgraded first, he said.

After that, there are eight school sites that will be the next priorities. That is primarily because they are part of the government’s E-rate program. E-rate is a federal program that provides discounts to such projects as Going Digital at school sites that have a high percentage of free and reduced lunch to students, or are located in areas where there are demographically low-income families.

By using the E-rate program, the district will enjoy as much as up to 90 percent in discounts in the purchase of network equipment as well as labor costs.

E-rate funds are built up through a portion of the telephone bills that you pay for every month.

Deadlines associated with the availability of E-rate funds are the big reasons for selecting the eight school-site priorities in the district’s digital project. That’s also the main reason the eight school sites have to be completed by September. The eight schools are French Camp Elementary, George Komure and Great Valley elementary in Weston Ranch, Golden West, Sequoia, and Shasta elementary in Manteca, Lathrop Elementary on Fifth Street in Lathrop, and Manteca Day School.

Next on the priority list will be school sites that currently have no Wi-Fi or wireless connectivity.

Colby said disruption will be kept at minimum while the wiring and cable installations will be done at the various school campuses. The majority of the work will occur after school hours and during the weekends, with no overtime involved on the part of the workers.

“We actually negotiated that,” Colby said of the no-overtime clause in the workers’ contract.

The goals of Going Digital “all revolve around the students,” Colby emphasized. “That’s the biggest piece of this project. Going Digital is all engrained with technology, but it’s really student-driven. Our students are in a different world than when we were in school. The goal is to provide the district with the digital infrastructure that will support 21st-century learning. It will provide teachers and students with tools to access Common Core and other 21st-century educational programs.”

Furthermore, the digital project will provide equal technology opportunity to all school sites in the district, Colby added.

“Regardless if a student goes to Knodt or Woodward (elementary), they’re all going to be using the same type of technology,” he said.

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