Remaking education infrastructure for the future

Remaking education infrastructure for the future

Cloud-based telephony brings a rural school district 21st-century services—and 28 percent savings.

Drive north on Route 5 about two hours from Sacramento, the state capital, and you get to Anderson, California. Sitting about halfway between the capital and the Oregon border, it’s a rural center with a history of underservice from network providers.

“We’ve always had the ‘last mile’ dilemma,” says Tony Baldwin, technology director for Anderson Union High School District (AUHSD). The nearest central offices (COs) were miles away, and the district’s seven campuses, serving 2200 high school students, were stuck on POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) lines, with analog phone systems anywhere from 15-30 years old.

At the same time, California’s education system was undergoing “a whirlwind of change,” says Baldwin. AUHSD, serving a district with a 65 percent poverty level, was facing new curriculum and data compliance requirements, along with the demand for Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs), which redefined how California school systems are funded.

Keeping pace with technology

California school districts have access to E-rate funding—special assistance the federal government distributes to school districts and libraries in order to keep pace with technological change on the communications and networking fronts. AUHSD was looking for proposals to upgrade its antiquated telephone system, but Baldwin wasn’t happy with the responses to the district’s requests for proposals (RFPs), and the board was running up against two deadlines: one to submit a request for E-rate funding, and one to make sure the phone system was up and running on the first day of school.

“We felt we were getting a lot of cookie-cutter offers,” Baldwin says—minimal voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) functionality, lacking advanced features, and priced far above what the district could afford.

Enter CALNET 3, a service provided by the State of California Department of Technology that enables pre-qualified vendors to provide telecommunications services to public sector customers. Established in 2013, CALNET 3 awarded contracts for 10 categories of telecom services, with cloud service provider NWN Corporation winning contracts for three categories:

  • VoIP provision
  • Hosted call center applications
  • Web conferencing

So when AUHSD went looking for a service provider that could fulfill its requirements, it found NWN who, in just four days, turned around a proposal that met, and exceeded, their requirements. Moreover, NWN committed to having the district’s 265 handsets up and running before the start of the school term—a 45-day timeline that was met with five days to spare and which also allowed for initial testing and debugging.

Advanced safety features

To date, Baldwin says, the solution is primarily a telephony substitute, but with some important advanced features that have an impact on student and teacher safety, including:

  • Handsets that can activate a campus-wide paging system
  • E911 capabilities that locate emergency calls to specific room and wing numbers, so first responders know exactly where they’re going

The Cisco Call Manager-based platform is also a jumping-off point for collaborative video and audio technologies down the road, for distance education and training. “They’re on the planning map,” says Baldwin.

That map is becoming more central to the AUHSD vision, as competing demands of quality education and constrained budgets clash. “We’ve actually had to do a lot more with a lot less,” Baldwin says, adding that the cloud-based telephony platform has played a key role. According to Baldwin, AUHSD has already managed a 28 percent drop in telephony costs over the first six months of the deployment, with a vast increase in functionality.

And, perhaps most importantly of all, it’s also bringing cutting edge communication technology to underserved rural communities.

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