Classroom desks with devices

“Our Kids Are Worth It”: How A Florida District Amplified its Digital Learning Opportunities

Mr. Russell Cheatham and Mr. Tom Fitzgerald, respectively the CIO and IT Director of Brevard County Public Schools, have both seen first-hand how dramatically classroom technology needs have evolved over the years. Both have had long careers at Brevard and have worked closely to implement technology into the schools’ digital learning programs. That’s why, since taking on their current roles, they planned Brevard’s technology programs with future needs squarely in view.

Overcoming Obstacles to Digital Access

Prior to their upgrade, Brevard’s tech leaders took stock of where technology was headed and the challenges that they’d have to navigate for effective implementation into each school.

In years past, particularly in the district’s elementary schools, Wireless Access Points (WAPs) couldn’t support the rapidly growing number of devices in every classroom; only 12 students could get online at one time. They tried to work within those limitations, creating an initiative for every third classroom to have a WAP, but it just wasn’t meeting the demand.

Because of some of the county’s geographic features, ensuring that the schools’ infrastructure could better handle the technological load was going to take some very strategic planning. Brevard County’s district is located in two different carrier exchange areas; that, combined with the region’s location near a river and a beach, meant that they had to consider their upgrade very carefully before moving forward.

Mr. Cheatham and Mr. Fitzgerald knew that in order to offer students the best possible digital learning opportunities on a long-term basis, they needed a broadband model that was “structured and load-balanced.”

Shifting Their Strategy

In 2008, Brevard’s technology and facility services staff teamed to develop future school renovation design standards. Mr. Fitzgerald saw an opportunity to plan ahead and set the schools up for future digital learning success. Brevard strategized to add Wi-Fi access to every single classroom and began building out fiber cabling with the goal of eventually reaching 10 Gbps in broadband connectivity — enough to stream HD-quality videos, use Skype for virtual field-trips, and collaborate with students across the globe.

The initiative centered around an investment in higher-end fiber so that the district could make ongoing upgrades on a 20-year basis. Investing to serve long-term needs was, for Brevard, a smarter alternative to upgrading gradually, and then having to keep playing catch-up every few years.

In addition, Brevard implemented the “Campus Connection Program,” which interconnected adjoining schools with fiber. The initiative impacted sixteen schools/support sites across six adjoining campuses, which saved the district $300-400/month every month for each connection. Since the upgrades, the switch to high-end fiber and the district’s strategic initiatives have saved $68K a year. Leveraging these savings coupled with E-Rate eligibilities afforded the district the opportunity to double their Internet bandwidth from 5 Gbps to 10 Gbps to meet new bandwidth needs.

Reaping the Benefits of Greater Connectivity

Among the many benefits of having robust bandwidth in all classrooms, Brevard’s leaders have been especially pleased with the “opportunity for greater collaboration between students and staff.” By having strategically implemented high-speed broadband and Wi-Fi into its infrastructure, the district has enabled “realistic learning environments,” so that the way students learn more closely aligns with the transition from school into college and the workforce.

This Florida district did a fantastic job of thinking ahead and planning accordingly. Its tech leaders urge other districts to be realistic about the upgrade process, without losing sight of its importance. In their view, Brevard has “been successful because of past lessons learned.” Their suggestions for districts embarking on a similar journey include:

  • Take advantage of the support of your E-rate eligibilities. For Brevard, E-rate was an absolutely essential enabler of progress. While it can take time to navigate, the returns are worthwhile. Brevard is greatly appreciative of the E-Rate program and emphasizes that Brevard’s progress would not be possible without the eligibilities of this federal program.
  • Negotiate flexible contracts with service providers. Since technology demands change rapidly and sometimes unpredictably, make sure your district has room to pivot its strategy as needed. Having scalable broadband infrastructure can help immensely in giving you that flexibility.
  • Talk to other districts about their upgrades to get feedback and help shape your own strategy. Offering robust and reliable digital access in classrooms is a nationwide concern, so whenever possible, solicit input and support from those who’ve gone through that process.

Brevard’s forward-thinking approach has made a clear impact on its students’ digital opportunities in the classroom. The district will continue to implement upgrades to ensure that every student has the best digital access possible for years to come.

Learn more about the steps districts can take to upgrade school networks within existing budgets.

*Image provided by Brevard County Public Schools