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CFISD: A school district banking on technology to forge academic success

By Frankie Jackson, Daniele Loffreda / May 2018

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The demand for digital learning tools is driving school districts like the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (CFISD) in Houston to make significant investments in the physical networks needed to connect buildings, and to power the Wi-Fi services used to connect staff and students to digital applications via Wi-Fi enabled devices. CFISD took some bold steps to transform its approach and connect more than 115,000 students and 14,000 staff across more than 100 campuses and service centers. As the third largest school district in Texas, reaching today's tech-dependent student was imperative for CFISD.

Anticipating a Digital Future

CFISD gets it—the district sees how new digital education tools have the potential to improve academic performance while giving students a leg up over their peers in the global information economy of the 21st century. For four consecutive years, the Education Resource Group (ERG) ranked CFISD in the top two among the 200 largest districts in Texas for academic and financial performance. To provide students and staff with always-on internet access to support a collaborative educational environment, CFISD secured a $1.2 billion bond and additional E-rate funds for its Vision 2020 initiative, which calls for the installation of a state-of-the-art, high-speed wireless access network infrastructure to meet student learning needs. The network would be capable of supporting new eLearning initiatives such as web-based courses and recorded classroom lessons, while providing secure systems for storing and disseminating students' personal records.

Inside the New 100 Gbps Network

To make Vision 2020 a reality, CFISD required a complete network overhaul. The district was providing internet service across campuses and service centers via outdated wireless access, enabled by legacy (old and inefficient) network cables that provided just enough bandwidth to support mission-critical functions, like email, and to securely transmit data. Unfortunately, there was a lack of capacity for students and teachers to leverage the network for instructional use. There were too many instances in which students and staff could not hold a constant wireless connection, which made this "anytime, anywhere" broadband access endeavor non-sustainable. To combat this challenge, CFISD replaced its legacy network with a next-generation platform that could easily scale to support essential functions and give all students and staff the ability to connect up to three devices—a phone, tablet, laptop, or even wearables—concurrently.

Leveraging its long-standing ties with PS LIGHTWAVE (formerly known as Phonoscope Lightwave), a regional telecommunications service provider recognized for its extensive dark fiber network footprint, CFISD implemented Ciena's 6500 Packet-Optical Platform to build a private optical network that would connect campuses, students, and teachers. This 100 gigabits per second (Gbps) network was designed to allow students to easily interact and collaborate with peers and engage in distance learning. It also provided the scalability required to meet the district's anticipated bandwidth needs over the next several years.

Getting Administrators and Teachers on Board

Most of CFISD's staff, accustomed to traditional methods of teaching with textbooks and chalkboards, did not have the experience to effectively implement online courseware and blended learning that were now made possible with the new infrastructure. After the network was deployed, the district hired, Eric Scheninger, author of Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times, as a consultant to help administrators enhance instructional practices. His primary focus was to create a tech-forward culture and mindset for the school district. Scheninger provided training to get staff comfortable with new technology-enhanced teaching approaches.

Learning Around the Clock

With the network deployed and staff trained, the floodgates were opened and the district was hungry to implement new eLearning applications and initiatives. Instructors now use high-resolution interactive white boards from Promethean, which also capture material from the day's lesson and can be printed for students. Hover cameras have been installed to take pictures of the classroom as well as record audio and video, allowing students to revisit class lectures and activities. Teachers also use Google Classroom to post lessons and assignments, including videos of the day. The applications help students who are struggling in a certain subject area or are absent from school catch up to their peers.

Students now have a digital ID "badge" to check out library books, pay lunch, to enter and exit the bus, and other purposes. There is also a family mobile app so parents can know where their child is at all times and receive notifications on grades and homework due. These "smart" administrative applications make it easier for students to get through their day while keeping parents and guardians involved in their day-to-day educational activities.

A Model for Other Districts

Now, with a scalable private optical network in place, students and teachers have the network capacity to develop projects that are more robust and complex with higher-level thinking by applying knowledge through robotics, computer programming, graphic arts, automotive technology, and other innovative applications.

CFISD's dark fiber network offers better control, flexibility, and overall cost advantages to provide an environment for students to progress at their own pace. Taking advantage of its new technology infrastructure that's supporting a rapidly changing learning paradigm, CFISD has a few applications in store.

  • eLTE project. CFISD is developing a pilot, eLTE network, by strategically placing high-speed radios on top of area towers. If successful, the eLTE network will give students in the district a "broadband card" to get quality internet access at home where they might not otherwise have access.
  • Expansion of blended learning. The district is seeking to pursue a more strategic and focused learning strategy that would allow students to learn, at least in part, outside a supervised brick-and-mortar location. CFISD would allow classroom sessions to be captured in video format then repeated for students or parents with new tools from Live Stream and others to deploy its content of curriculum in a more organized fashion.
  • Creating a content library. CFISD is looking to build a private cloud leveraging its data center to store student information as they progress through grade levels. This will allow students to access their own portfolio of work they've developed over time.

CFISD understood to prepare students for an increasingly global and digital society, it had to implement eLearning initiatives that synchronized with a generation who has grown up in a tech-centric environment. The 100 Gbps network, which is powered by Ciena, does just that by providing the network infrastructure for the district to support every student's potential through rigorous and relevant learning experiences. CFISD's approach stands as a model for other school districts seeking to understand how to implement technology with a generation that's been ingrained in it.

About the Authors

Frankie Jackson is the Chief Technology Officer of Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District (CFISD), the third largest district in Texas and the 24th largest district in the nation. Her responsibilities include managing technology services for 114,000 students. Prior to joining CFISD, Jackson served as the CTO of Goose Creek CISD for 19 years. She also served on the Texas Association for School Business Officials (TASBO) Board of Directors for seven years, as well as Board president in 2011.

Daniele Loffreda is the State/Local Government, Education & Healthcare Industry Advisor at Ciena. Having spent 25 years working within the ICT industry, Loffreda has held various roles encompassing a variety of functions with multiple organizations. Prior to joining Ciena, Loffreda was a senior manager for Market Intelligence and Communications at Fujitsu. Prior to that, she spent time working for PE Associates, Singapore Telecom, Sprint, and AT&T.

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