Guilderland district finalizing tech investments with security, redundancy, infrastructure

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff
One-to-one: Kelly Cordi, left, hands a laptop to incoming seventh-grader Alexis Smith at Farnsworth Middle School in August 2018 when each student was given a laptop this school year.

GUILDERLAND — Money from the Smart Schools Bond Act has transformed learning in Guilderland schools as each student in fifth through 12th grades is given a laptop, said Demian Singleton, the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction. The latest round of funds is less glamorous, he said, but will provide essential “backbone and infrastructure.”

The Guilderland school district has received roughly $630,000 more in Smart Schools funds, the governor’s office announced last week.

Statewide, the recently approved school plans total $111 million, part of the $2 billion bond act that New York voters approved in 2014. The funds are to be used for technology — in the classroom and for school security and connectivity.

Guilderland had previously been reimbursed about $800,000 in Smart Schools funds, according to Singleton.

The earlier money was used to provide every student in fifth through 12th grade with his or her own Chromebook laptop.

Funds were also used to upgrade the television studio at Farnsworth Middle School. “It used to be a lot of analogue; now it’s entirely digital,” said Singleton.

Finally, earlier funds were used to “bring WiFi connections up to full saturation,” Singleton said, at both the middle school and the high school.

“We now have wifi access in every one of our classrooms,” he said. “It’s been a heavy lift, giving us a nice boost forward.”

The current round of funding, which totals $628,976, will be used for two large initiatives — each well over $200,000 — and several smaller projects.

The district’s firewall system and cyber security will be improved, Singleton said, and the presentation station in the high school’s large-group instruction room, where school board meetings are held and broadcast, will be upgraded.

Additionally, the audio systems in both the high school auditorium and the middle school cafetorium (which serves as both a lunch room and an auditorium) will be improved.

“Some were amendments to previously-approved projects,” said Singleton of the new funds. For example, he said, the Chromebook model at the time Guilderland made its application has changed. “It’s a better device now at a lower cost,” said Singleton.

With the new funds, infrastructure upgrades will be made at all five of the district’s elementary schools. The schools currently have “an older generation of switches,” Singleton said. The new model will increase speed and connectivity.

Another infrastructure change has to do with server virtualization. Currently, there are software packages that both office staff and classroom teachers would like to use that aren’t accessible on Chromebooks. That includes, for example, software for pre-engineering courses at the high school in the Project Lead the Way program, or payroll software for the clerical staff.

By having the “virt” or server virtualization, multiple operating systems can run on a single physical server. “It gives us much more flexibility,” said Singleton, “and we can use more sophisticated software packages.”


What’s next?

On Monday, Singleton said, “As we speak, I’m finalizing a project for the high school TV video and podcast [center] that will greatly enhance our ability to broadcast within the school and also on Channel 16.”

Of the total funds Guilderland was initially allotted through the Smart Schools Bond Act, the district has about $150,000 remaining, Singleton said.

That will be used to create redundancy, for school safety, he said.

Singleton explained, “Currently, the pipe that comes into our school district is from telephone poles. It goes to our high school and then branches out to the other schools. The entire school district would shut down if a car took out a pole on [Route] 146.”

The plan is to have a second point of connection at Farnsworth Middle School, Singleton said, “so you never lose any connection.”

He stressed the importance of this redundancy from a safety and security perspective.

“If we lose that connection, we’re not in good shape,” he said.


Learning transformed

With the improvements in infrastructure, Singleton said, “Students can work efficiently; the tools they need to create and publish are at their fingertips.”

He went on, “Pretty much all of our classrooms are dependent on technology and rely on the system.”

For instruction, Singleton said, “Accessing technology in the midst of learning is a far different paradigm. You used to have to schedule time on a computer lab, which takes time away from instruction.

“Now, at any point in time, any teacher with any student can access tools to enhance learning with no disruption.”

Also, he said, students in six through 12th grades (fifth-graders aren’t quite old enough) can take their laptops home with them.

“Certainly, we have repairs and fixes, but we haven’t been overrun,” he said. “Our students are coached to be responsible. Having a device they can call their own, rather than borrowing one, they tend to care for it more.”

Google Classroom software, he said, allows for “great communication with parents.”

Finally, Singleton stressed, “The equity around it is important.” Before, some students had computers at home while others did not. Now every student has a Chromebook.

“We’ve been able to ensure every student has technology. It really levels the playing field,” said Singleton.

He concluded, “The two big projects just approved are not glamorous.” He called them “backbone and infrastructure.”

“Some elements of this will improve cyber security,” said Singleton. “Across New York State and nationally, there’s been a significant uptick in malicious activities,” he said, noting recent ransomware victims.

“Protecting the system and privacy of our students and family is front and center,” he said.

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