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Retooling schools for a high-technology future

School days today increasingly involve more than reading, writing, arithmetic - and the golden rule. Educational facilities nationwide are depending upon a host of technological devices to allow students to venture beyond the classroom environment for learning. Schools, faced with preparing students for the future job market, need networks, e-mail services, and conference systems. They also need videoconferencing

School days today increasingly involve more than reading, writing, arithmetic - and the golden rule. Educational facilities nationwide are depending upon a host of technological devices to allow students to venture beyond the classroom environment for learning. Schools, faced with preparing students for the future job market, need networks, e-mail services, and conference systems. They also need videoconferencing and interactive learning to deliver customized instruction. Finally, they need flexible classrooms, common areas, space for team teaching, and the ability to fully integrate today's technology.

These technological concerns have fueled an already exploding school-construction market. For example, U.S. kindergarten through 12 grade (K-12) public school districts poured a record $17 billion into construction in 1998. This data, published in the May 1999 issue of American School and University magazine, shows that the upward trend is likely to continue for at least a few years. The survey, which looked at more than 16,000 school districts representing an excess of 110,000 schools, also found that districts built new schools ($7.8 billion), added to existing ones ($5.1 billion), and completed major upgrades ($4 billion), for a total of $17 billion in 1998-almost $3 billion more than spent in 1997.

Several reasons account for the boom: surging enrollments, stronger economic growth, greater political recognition of the importance of education, and a growing realization of the deteriorating conditions of our schools. From 1983 through 1995, close to 60% of public school money was spent on existing buildings. During the past three years, with rising enrollments, more than half was spent for new school construction.

Computer labs are planned for 60% of new elementary schools, 91% of middle schools, and 85% of high schools. More than 80% of all public school facilities currently are installing fiber optics and wiring for local area networks.

Thus, these figures project the education market as a significant opportunity for electric power and low voltage work. More specifically, the cabling market for K-12 schools is seen as one of the best business opportunities for contractors in the coming years.

Getting the details right Someone who knows how to properly set up a telecommunications infrastructure in a school is Bob Fitzsimons, senior consultant at Information Transport Enterprises, New Canaan, Conn., who prepares design and specification for school telecommunications systems. Previously, he was a senior technical staff member of IBM Internal Telecommunications, with the task of planning the information cabling systems and their applications for IBM's internal user community. Fitzsimons said it is critically important to train the personnel before putting technology in their hands. "If you move too fast you'll just have this enormous amount of technology sitting around not being used. Before doing any wiring, an administration should thoroughly plan what the system will do. A school district may say that Middle School X will get the latest communications technology, but if a plan to fit the technology into the overall curriculum isn't made, putting in new cabling may be a waste of time.

Schools need to plan computer use Fitzsimons said. For example, they can teach the use of the mouse and keyboard and do rudimentary Windows in grades one through three; teach word processing and have the students do homework on the computers in the fourth to sixth grade; and finally teach the students to perform computations in grades seven through nine. If there isn't such a plan, an administration will have a difficult time.

"Then, in order to properly wire for all services-power, data and televisionyou have to know what tasks will take place in each type of room. Do you have a science lab, library, media center, etc? Is there going to be a TV in every room, a phone, a data jack?

Video distribution in school buildings has become just as important, as telephone distribution. Fitzsimons finds that by putting a telephone in a classroom, a teacher can use call-forwarding, access voice mail, and most importantly, can leave messages on the school's voice mail system. This way, a parent can call to find out what the homework is or what is going to happen that day. At the same time, a parent can leave a message. The idea is to give the teacher all the phone functions that someone in a business office would have.

Today the telecommunications wiring and the power contracts are awarded separately. But most installers believe it is better to award both services together. There is a trend in that direction.

In most existing school buildings, the power is significantly under capacity to be able to support the communications system, Fitzsimons said. "We see this because we're doing work on buildings that have evolved over the last few decades-erected back in the '40s, something added in the '50s and then some more additions in the 1970s. There are different kinds of wall construction in the building-stone and masonry, brick, precast concrete, dry wall, etc. Also, there is not a common electrical ground."

More than 85% of Fitzsimons' time is spent determining the physical path for the cabling-conduit, sleeve, through-the-slab fitting, cable tray, etc. And, preparing the drawings and installing the pathway systems eats up most of the cost.

"To ensure that the building's electrical devices and the communications equipment are at the same ground potential, a No. 3/0 stranded bare copper loop from the building's central ground point to the distribution frames is ideal, Fitzsimons said. "We have found that surge suppression devices are important at the subpanel and at the equipment outlet, especially in older buildings."

System maintenance is important

A school that installs a modern telecommunications system should also commit to properly supporting the system, Fitzsimons said. "Even schools that budget funds for technology annually often fail to invest in computer experts who can keep their complex systems running smoothly," he said.

The maintenance of the school network is very important, because it has to be up and running all of the time.

"We've added wording to the contractor's bid document, so that the contract scope is not just to pull in some cable and provide a five-year warranty. We add into the contract, the response time and performance criteria for fixing any downtime problem. This could be a 24-hr emergency service clause, a 2-hr response time for fixing a problem, or a technical support hotline. So the contractor has a performance requirements to fulfill. You would never see this in the past.

While these performance requirements are only randomly used in business installations, many installers believe it is becoming necessary in the schools. Because once you network technology into the curriculum, it hto be available on the day and the hour it's needed. Any failure in the network system is same as a teacher being out.

"In business, someone might say, 'If the server is down, we won't send out invoices today.' It's really shocking to say that a school may have a higher performance response time than a business, but consider the audience."

Planning the wireways

The use of a surface mounted raceway with two separate channels, one for low voltage wiring and the other for the associated ac power branch circuits, is being specified more than in the past, but the economics regarding its use is not always there. For example installers don't often have a straight 30-ft wall surface for mounting a decent raceway section in an existing building.

In regard to the branch circuit power for supporting the electronic equipment, Fitzsimons prefers to have an isolated grounding conductor in the system serving the receptacles. He finds that, when the building has a properly installed grounding system, intermittent computer problems and network system interrupts go away. In fact, they almost completely disappear.

One Kentucky school district takes pride in its well-thought-out capital improvement projects. The technology upgrade at the local high school provides full computer access to the school's 1,200 students. Phase one focused on installing the cabling infrastructure and providing a computer for each teacher. Phase two provides one computer for every six students. The consultant on the project noted that proper cable handing, which avoids stretching and bending, is particularly important. For instance, improperly installed Cat 5 twisted pair copper cabling can cause defective (corrupted) transmissions, particularly at high data rates. In this case, the consultant specified the use of a wire-mesh, cable support system that provides total flexibility without the need for ordering special cable tray components.

Also, the school district has to constantly choose between using a surface-mounted raceway, or putting the wiring behind the wall in the classroom areas. Generally, the designer prefers to place cabling in the wall. But sometimes that's not possible. Starting in the late 1980s, new schools had to be built with earthquake resistance techniques, which effectively eliminated any in-the-wall installations.

Blending all elements High-speed data wiring, adequate power and glare-free lighting should all be integrated into a modern classroom. A structured wiring system that delivers the data should be able to make allowances for any type of network that may be installed in the school building. Generally, a main equipment room serves as a central connection point for all of the building's interior wiring and provides an interface connection to circuits coming from outside sources, such as the local telephone company or cable provider. Vertical cables, called risers or backbones, connect the building's floors; the horizontal cables join the vertical cables at wiring closet on each floor.

Administrators in schools like to integrate as much low voltage services as possible into a single, well-integrated system. In some cases, these include administrative phones, intercom and public address system, television distribution, a master clock, and a fire alarm system.

At a school in Texas, a single system integrates fire alarm bells, the PA system, the security system and media retrieval. The maintenance staff can get service for any part of the system by calling just one vendor.

Bring in lighting needs School planners require proper information to make informed decisions about their lighting needs. They must examine issues such as energy efficiency, price vs. the installed cost, maintenance costs, and visual comfort of the students. Operating costs for school lighting systems far outweigh purchase costs over the life of the system. The initial premium paid for high quality, energy efficient light is a sound long-term investment.

Generally, the best lighting system for a classroom is a direct/indirect T8 fluorescent system specifically designed to address the needs of computer use. Wall washing luminaires can be used for perimeter chalkboards. Keep in mind that, in many areas of the country, the mounting system of a lighting system should be able to withstand the dynamic stresses imposed by seismic forces.

Often the electric lighting in schools is supplemented by daylight from skylights or windows. "Daylight harvesting" involves turning off a select group of luminaires during the day so that only some units are energized. Schools increasingly employ energy-efficient methods to save electrical power. One caveat emerges in the rosy school construction market: manpower. As the summer moves on, the effect of the overworked construction industry becomes clear. On both coasts, and most places in between, builders are reporting that they can't find some key materials or enough skilled labor to build homes. For the builders and subcontractors, prices on raw materials and labor have shot up, on average, between 15% and 20%. The labor market is the number one issue facing builders, and this situation spills over to the commercial and institutional construction markets.

Private schools

Private learning institutions constantly face a number of academic, financial and technological challenges. They must justify their tuition and compete for enrollees by offering students premier learning opportunities without the assistance of public funds. One private boarding preparatory school recently tied its 14 buildings on its 27-acre campus into a local area network. It also provides Internet access campus-wide. The school upgraded its telephone service as part of the project.

A total of 23 miles of multimode optical fiber link 11 voice and 12 data nodes are connected in a star configuration to the technology center in the basement of the school's library. Each student is assigned a four-digit identification number for telephone access. About one-third of them change room assignments at some point during the school year.

A key feature of the system is the use of a network management feature at the passive physical layer. The PatchView management station is a Windows software package that interprets and presents the patching configuration to the system administrator.

The system also connects to remote sensors that can detect whether wiring-closet doors are open or closed and can monitor equipment-room temperature and smoke detectors. The sensors can also monitor network connectivity and alert the administrator if patch cords are rearranged.

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