SANDWICH — Fiber optics will play a huge role in future education opportunities for students in Sandwich School District 430.
Distance learning and video conferencing are just two of the applications causing districtwide excitement, according to Superintendent of Schools Rick Schmitt and Director of Technology Glen Bloemker.
“We’ve been waiting for this day to arrive for several years and needless to say are just a little excited,” said Bloemker.
“It means that all six of our district school buildings are internally connected using fiber optics. It brings our district together and consolidates operations. It opens up an unlimited amount of possibilities for us,” added Schmitt.
Sandwich CUSD 430 is part of the DATA project – DeKalb Advancement of Technology Authority – serving the DeKalb County region. It works with Northern Illinois University (NIU) for the development of new educational programs. It also allows Sandwich to connect to Internet 2 through NIU for grant programs directed to K-12 schools, and through the Illinois Century Network (ICN).
The district’s 2,266 students are taught in three pre-K-3 grade schools, one intermediate school for grades 4-5, one middle school for grades 6-8 and the high school.
”DATA finished its work in November, and by mid-December we had connectivity in all school buildings,” said Bloemker. “Ultimately, fiber optics and the high-speed broadband connectivity also will produce savings in funds and resources for the district. We will be able to consolidate servers and have a disaster recovery plan.”
Schmitt added, “High-speed broadband makes it possible to strengthen and support engaged learning. We realize not every student has connectivity at home. We plan to examine partnerships with the Sandwich Public Library to make connectivity possible while students are there.”
The district is examining a long-range goal to provide all students with laptops, which could eliminate the need for textbooks, Schmitt said, adding it also is looking at a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy. Most students third grade and older now have their own phones or notebook devices.
“All of our buildings are connected now, with fiber enhancing the wireless Glen and his team deployed last summer. That means all students could access our host network using their mobile devices,” said Schmitt.
“We have some policies to work out first, of course, making sure it’s a secure network and being able to control access to inappropriate sites. We have to continue to brainstorm ways to implement such a program because technology keeps getting better and better each day. We have to put our collective minds together to find a way to make it work; we can’t put up a roadblock because of that,” he said.
Sandwich CUSD has a partnership with nearby Illinois Valley Vocational Center, which also will connect with fiber. IVVC has taken the initiative to expand its sports management and health occupation programs with KishHealth System’s Valley West Hospital, Schmitt said.
“It’s my understanding the fiber IVVC will be using is the same the hospital will be using. In terms of connecting and utilizing those resources, it could be a great educational tool in the future,” said Schmitt.
About 50 percent of Sandwich CUSD classrooms have “Smart Boards,” with a higher percentage using LCD projectors providing Internet lessons.
Bloemker said he has talked to tech coordinators at other area school districts about distance learning. “We could set up a hosting center and all the schools could tap into that with the backbone of the fiber,” he said.
In the past few years, Schmitt said the district has increased its technology budget.
“The board of education has been committed to enhancing and upgrading our technology, moving from a part-time tech coordinator to a full-time tech director. We did that because of the way we deliver programs and services – everything from student management and financial systems, to the number of computer labs and the fact every teacher has a computer. The IT support is critical,” Schmitt said.
Over the summer, the district deployed a wireless network system in all six buildings which has been well received. The staff is able to connect anywhere in the building, and when necessary, students are given a guest account.
“Technology has even been enhanced during board meetings. Board members no longer receive thick packets of paper documents; it’s now provided electronically and has been a cost saver,” Schmitt said.
The district recently switched to a new vendor for its student management system, which supports things like grades, attendance, discipline issues, lunch accounts and fees. Schmitt said it provides better efficiency and accountability if parents pay student fees and lunch costs electronically.
“Teachers also use the system’s grade software so they can post grades, lesson plans, handouts and other materials in real time, available for students and parents. With the new system, each student/parent has their own ID and password,” he said.
Bloemker and Schmitt said they have enjoyed working with the DATA support team bringing fiber to the Sandwich School District. “We simply cannot say thanks enough to DATA and its support team from NIU – from the first discussions we had about connecting the DeKalb County schools together to final connectivity,” they said.