Robertson County Schools

Robertson County Schools

Robertson County Schools installed wireless networks throughout all of its schools in a two-year, $2 million project funded by a variety of sources.

By Russ Gager

The days of blackboards are long gone from education. Nowadays, students need to keep up with the constant evolution of communication devices, and school boards are scrambling to find the funds to install wireless communication systems such as school-wide Wi-Fi and to purchase tablet computers to access the Internet.

Robertson County Schools in Springfield, Tenn., is meeting the challenge of this new era of communications with a district-wide Wi-Fi system. “We are equipping all of our new and old facilities with wireless capability,” Director of Schools Mike Davis says. “We’ve been working on this project for at least two years getting it up and running.”

All of the school district’s 21 buildings – 12 elementary schools, three middle schools, five high schools and one alternative school – have Wi-Fi throughout them. The cost of installing the systems was approximately $2 million.

One-time state funding of $700,000 got the ball rolling during the 2013-2014 school year. That accounted for 65 percent of the system’s cost. More funding came from property and sales taxes and a tax on establishments that serve liquor.

Retrofitting existing buildings that were designed and constructed long before wireless technologies – or even the Internet – were invented was challenging. “All the buildings are pretty complicated,” Davis concedes. Cable had to be strung from the network system closets to the wireless access points, and in some cases, existing cable had to be upgraded and restrung.

The access points – which are eight inches in diameter and mount on a ceiling – broadcast the Wi-Fi signal throughout the building. The closets also had to be networked to each other and to the broadband service provider’s connections outside the buildings with fiber-optic cable.

“Most of our schools have acoustical ceilings in them, and you can string cable in the attic, but when you have to penetrate through a firewall or concrete wall it can be pretty challenging,” Davis stresses. “You have to make sure your crews are working when no one is being disrupted. It’s a challenge to get the people there at the right time.”

After-Hours Installation

Fortunately, most of the work was done after hours or during summer, fall or spring breaks by two third-party companies called Systems Integration Inc. and Personal Computer Systems Inc. (PCS) along with the county’s five technicians.

“When we have a system go down or anything of that nature anywhere in the county, our technicians are there to provide the support for those devices,” Davis explains. “Just having the people with the knowledge and keeping those types of people on your payroll that can do this type of work is hard. It’s hard to find good technicians now that the employment picture has changed dramatically in Robertson County. We now have 4.5 percent unemployment. We’re 30 minutes from downtown Nashville, and people can find work that pays better than we do.”

Technology Supervisor James Marshall heads up the team that supervised Systems Integration Inc. and PCS. He worked on the installation of the Wi-Fi system and keeps the schools’ systems up and running. “What we’ve done over the last several years was when we did a renovation and rewired the building, we just replaced all our network and wireless access points to become a managed wireless system,” Marshall says. “That new equipment is capable of much higher speed. We can literally sit at the computer and see all these access points at the same time and tell if they are up or down and how much traffic is on the network. For our little county, that is a huge upgrade, and that has happened with the help of those moneys.”

The school network is organized as a hub-and-spoke system with the hub in Marshall’s office. Fiber-optic transmission is provided by the broadband service provider from the hub to the school buildings. The schools’ internal local area networks are wired with category 6 copper wire, but the network closets in each school are linked by fiber-optic cable to each other and to the service provider. Some buildings needed their category 5 cable replaced with category 6 so they could handle the 1-gigabyte speed of the network.

Calculating the number of wireless access points needed to provide the necessary speeds for each device in the schools is critical to the success of this wireless network. The coverage radius of each device was mapped on floor plans of the schools. “The new wireless access points are capable of handling up to 50 devices each,” Marshall explains. “We’re trying to get one in every classroom. Right now, there is one in every other classroom.”

New School Network

Robertson County Schools’ newest school, Crestview Elementary, was occupied on Aug. 1, 2015, and benefitted from being a new structure in which the network could be installed when it was built. “We’re very proud of Crestview,” Marshall says. “It is state-of-the-art low-voltage and has really good connectivity and wireless.”

The school has a voice-over-Internet protocol phone system and an elaborate security camera network. “We’d like for all our schools to be up to that standard,” Marshall says. But doing that requires much funding – Crestview School was built with money from a bond issue.

Marshall emphasizes that the biggest challenge is not installing a wireless network but finding the money for it. “I’m famous for scratching for money,” Marshall concedes. “I’m very fortunate in the bond issue to hire third-party people to come in and do this wiring or we’d never be able to pull this off. If that entity were not eligible for money, we’d have done a lot of this ourselves on a shoestring. Local dollars funded this, but where possible, we applied for federal or state funding because we had to do all 21 buildings.”

The new network will help Robertson County Schools take the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program test electronically. Davis uses a metaphor to explain where the schools are on their electronic quest. “We now have a pretty good highway,” he says. “We can send and receive and transmit data over our highway. What we have not been able to do at this point is get the cars and vehicles to drive those highways – the devices, the laptops, iPads and desktops. We have some but not near enough. We would like to have our district transition to a paperless type of instructional program.” 

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