Over Thanksgiving weekend, the school districts from Enterprise, Joseph and Wallowa, in conjunction with the Wallowa County Education Service District (ESD), installed a new wireless communication network to enhance information capabilities among the four educational centers. The sharing of teachers over V-Tel conferencing will be one practical aspect of the communication upgrade.
"About two years ago we decided there has got to be a better way for us to communicate and increase our capabilities," said ESD and Wallowa school district of schools superintendent Ed Jensen.
Wireless expert Cheryl Zollman of Union/Baker ESD in La Grande was called in to survey the situation and, in conjunction with local administrators, a preliminary plan was conceived.
The problem facing the four educational districts, at a time of tight budgetary constraints, was how to finance the wireless network. Jensen then went to the ESD's ace grant writer Linda Bauck who drafted a $98,000 technology grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Education. In the final days of September 2002 Jensen received preliminary verbal notice that $71,000 of the proposed grant had been approved.
Prior to that date in March of last year the wireless business Pacific Star from Portland came to Wallowa County and provided a preliminary sight survey at no charge to the districts. It was determined that the Joseph, Enterprise and ESD hook-up would be basic, but that special antennas would be required, because of the additional distance involved, to hook up with the Wallowa school district.
Looking at a total cost of $89,000, the schools agreed to provide $6,600 apiece to put the network in place. The ESD's portion of the cost beyond the grant comes in the form of in-kind services such as Jensen's time, the management of the grant, costs accrued in the letting of the bid and additional costs for installation.
The physical nature of the new network includes equipment placed on top of the schools in Joseph and Wallowa, equipment on the Enterprise junior high school building, equipment on the top of the Wallowa Valley Mall where the ESD is headquartered and equipment at the translator sight at Sheep Ridge located between Enterprise and Wallowa.
The Wallowa school district was the first district in Eastern Oregon to have Internet access on a school-wide basis. That came in 1996, about one year before Enterprise went on line. Joseph has never had a T1 connection.
The cost of maintaining their T1 connections was a constant $450 per month to both the Wallowa and Enterprise school districts, minus the government's e-rate discount which takes away 70 percent of the bill for schools and libraries. Jensen is glad to get away from the $135 monthly expense and the fear that the e-rate discount might one day go away.
One plan in the immediate future is for the three schools to V-Tel a calculus class. The plan is for one instructor to teach at Wallowa one week, with signals transmitted to calculus classrooms in Enterprise and Joseph. The teacher would next spend a week teaching in Enterprise with signals sent to classrooms in Wallowa and Joseph. The instructor would next teach in person in Joseph. The advantage, says Jensen, is that students would have personal interaction with their teacher every three weeks.
Video classes have been around a long time, but the live sharing of a teacher at different locations is a relatively new concept. Each school would still have the capability of bringing in classes from outside sources, such as Eastern Oregon University, at the same time.
The actual installation of equipment was made by Pacific Star from Friday through Sunday of the Thanksgiving weekend. Pacific Star was awarded the contract at a price of $81,959 from among three bidders. Bids were also received from the Union/Baker ESD and from Clark Communications in Lewiston, Idaho.
To accelerate the process the ESD board of directors authorized Jensen to let the bid at its October meeting contingent on written approval of the $71,000 grant. Within the next month the official notice had been received, the bid let and awarded, and Pacific Star was back in Wallowa County a second time to determine specifics of the project, including radio frequencies.
The new system has a 10 megabit, full duplex capacity which, says Jensen, "is something we can grow into, not grow out of." Expanding telecommunication capacity on the old T1 lines would have required significant equipment upgrades at both ends of the copper line.
Jensen hopes that the new wireless system will be put in use by local libraries and government agencies. He says that Wallowa Memorial Hospital is already hooked up to the network.
The future uses of the wireless network, says Jensen, are only limited by the creativity of the teachers, students and administrators and how technologically advanced they become in the years ahead.