The hidden powerhouse of wireless learning

chapelle_it1   
    Sometimes, as Dorothy discovered in the land of Oz, it’s all about the man behind the curtain.

   
    When Justin Gibson, director of the archdiocesan Office of Information Technology, talks about the massive upgrades to the Catholic school system’s computer network since Hurricane Katrina, it’s understandable for laypersons to focus on the high-tech equipment, iPads and glitzy SmartBoards that are the final, visible link in the information chain.
    But if it weren’t for the cabling infrastructure – often hidden and not very interesting to look at – none of the whiz-bang stuff that is going on in Catholic school classrooms throughout the Archdiocese of New Orleans would be happening today.
    “It’s not nearly as glorious as the construction of a fancy new building,” Gibson said, smiling. “But one of the critical components of success in today’s education world is the data cabling infrastructure, and that’s hidden in the walls and the invisible airspace inside the buildings of every school.”
    That’s where Gibson’s office has come in since Katrina. Using an initial $500,000 gift from the local Stella Roman Foundation – which usually funds the installation of electronic bell systems in churches around Louisiana – the archdiocese was able to leverage the money to produce about $5 million in immediate upgrades to the cabling infrastructure around the archdiocese.
Stella Roman funding
    Gibson used the Stella Roman grant to take advantage of the federal government’s “E-Rate” program, which helped schools across the Gulf Coast recover from Katrina. The federal program offered to pay 90 percent of the cost of the data infrastructure repairs – which would enhance the speed and size of data networks – if the local school district would pay a 10 percent match to the vendors completing the work.
     Gibson drafted a proposal ensuring that each school would receive “enterprise level” (state-of-the-art) installation and products.
     “We met with the Administrative Council and we got their unanimous support to move forward,” Gibson said. “The opportunity was too good to pass up. But there still was the challenge of how the archdiocese and the schools would fund the 10-percent match.”

chapelle_it2    The Stella Roman board saw Gibson’s proposal and jumped at the chance to help.
    “The 9-to-1 match was something the trustees couldn’t pass up,” said local attorney Dene Denechaud, an original director of the foundation. “I think Justin got $5 million, and he spent every dime. We were very delighted we were able to fund this because it gives our schools a leg up as compared to the public schools. We are technologically way ahead.”
    That $5 million has rolled into a $20 million project over the last five years.
    “Without that initial donation, which we used as a project seed, I don’t think we would have been able to start utilizing the project funds for at least another year,” Gibson said. “That would have been catastrophic because many schools were chomping at the bit to reopen in either their permanent campus or setting up temporary campuses to allow students to get back to an educational routine.”
Quick completion
    Originally, Gibson thought the archdiocesan-wide project would take three or more years to complete. But the quick start allowed his office to finish the project in just two years by doing school sites concurrently.
     Now that technology has made such incredible advances, data cabling infrastructure has become an integral part of a successful school campus, Gibson said.
    “It’s no longer about just making room for some computer cables,” he said. “Now we have to take into account office communications systems, security systems, audio and video systems, wireless local area networks (WLAN) and other highly specialized configurations.”
    Archbishop Chapelle president Jane Ann Frosch said, in a providential way, Katrina wound up helping archdiocesan schools.
    “I think we were all in the same boat,” Frosch said. “We all had very aging buildings, and we were really struggling with wireless and Internet access in order to access the latest in educational technology for our students. Cinderblock buildings don’t like wireless.”
    But with a little ingenuity, Chapelle got a hookup from a device on the top of Metairie Manor, and the wireless setup worked like a charm.
    “I can’t tell you how highly I think of what his office has done for the entire system,” Frosch said. “All I know is it works.”
iPads in use
    Each of Chapelle’s 800 students uses an iPad in class and at home, and most take all their notes and do term papers using the device.
    “Once we got those devices into students’ hands, everything just clicked,” Frosch said. “You’re always a little apprehensive when you start any kind of a new venture, but we did a very good job of preparation.”
    Chapelle students use both iBooks (distributed by Apple) for chemistry and geometry and also e-books. They use an app for the Bible and “The Catechism of the Catholic Church.” Next year the electronic books will expand to social studies, American history, world history. Civics, Algebra 2 and pre-calculus.
    The price for the e-books is a fraction of what regular textbooks sell for – about $15 for a normal $90 book, Frosch said.
    Gibson said Katrina left the archdiocesan schools data network infrastructure “in ruin.” Before Katrina, each school had installed data systems that often were completely different from a neighboring school. There was no standardization.
     Gibson believes the Catholic schools “have the finest enterprise data network infrastructure available today.”
    During the last five years, archdiocesan high schools have implemented a one-to-one laptop program and then evolved into a one-to-one program with iPads.
    “A one-to-one initiative of that scale could not have been supported if it was not for the data infrastructure to support enterprise wireless capability,” Gibson said. “When we were working with the Apple engineers on evaluating our high school campuses for the iPad deployment, they mentioned that our standardized infrastructure was one of the best they had seen.”
    “Justin and Michael Bartlett on his staff have really been there for our schools, making themselves available when they’re needed,” said Catholic Schools superintendent Dr. Jan Lancaster. “They’ve really gone beyond the call.”
     The Office of Information Technology delivers more than 19 million content-filtered web pages daily to the students. The archdiocesan Internet “pipe” has grown from 9 megabytes of capacity before Katrina to 1 gigabyte today, and it will need to grow to 2 gigabytes by the summer “as more schools utilize the amazing resources that the Internet has available.”
    More than 70 schools participated in the program and more than 4.5 million feet of cabling has been placed in the schools (860 miles placed end to end).
    Gibson considers the “hidden” project one of his “greatest professional achievements” because it has “just worked” as advertised.
    “I know that our school principals and technology coordinators have been able to focus more of their efforts on the students, and that’s very rewarding,” Gibson said.
    Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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