SOUTH BEND, IN – Before receiving a Metrolink Fiber Grant, Trinity at Greenlawn, a high performing school that is a Department of Education Blue Ribbon School for 2013,was impacted by connectivity constraints. Trinity’s Internet service didn’t have enough capacity to support high definition streaming video, and seamless linking of computers and classrooms to each other and the cloud just wasn’t possible. While long buffering times, frozen screens, slow responses and timed-out file loading are inconveniences for home Internet users, in a school limited bandwidth can mean interrupted lessons, distracting students who sit and wait. Educational opportunities are lost as teachers forgo online resources because of delays and frustration.

This year, the limits are off at Trinity. Every screen is open, connected to the Internet and students download and scroll without delays. The Trinity transformation was made possible by a new Metronet Zing connection. Access to Metronet’s high-speed, high capacity dark fiber network has changed how Trinity’s teachers teach and how students learn.

K-12 Fiber to Schools Grants Initiative
Trinity is the first recipient of a grant through St. Joe Valley Metronet and nCloud’s new K-12 Fiber to Schools Grants Initiative. Each grant covers the cost of extending conduit and fiber from the Metronet backbone into the school and also provides three years of Metronet access. Trinity’s connection was installed over the summer.

Tom Cuggino is chairman of the committee supervising the school fiber initiative for Metronet. He said the grants have two main objectives: to encourage schools to develop innovative approaches that will improve education outcomes; and to remove broadband capacity constraints that may hinder implementation of those approaches. Before Metronet brought virtually unlimited connectivity, Bartek’s biology students exchanged information through e-mail after school or by trading flash drives, taking work home where getting online often was faster and easier.

Danielle Svonavec’s seventh-grade students study music composition using online software. A year ago, just half the class could be connected at a time. Even with that limited number, slow connections meant wasted time as students waited for the software to store and process their work. This year, all students are online. Response is seamless. Instead of being frustrated by computer issues, students work without distraction. The class is able to take full advantage of the software and learning is enhanced as students hear their compositions played back instantly as they work.

Most schools in St. Joseph County could tell similar stories where the effectiveness of teaching and learning is diminished because of limited broadband capacity. Mary Jan Hedman, CEO of St. Joe Valley Metronet, said helping schools become better connected and at the same time encouraging innovation serves the purpose for which Metronet was founded almost a decade ago.

Metronet Created to Supply Dark Fiber Infrastructure
A public-private partnership, Metronet was created to supply dark fiber infrastructure that would support economic development in an area where opportunities were hampered by the high cost and limited availability of broadband service. Businesses, universities, medical providers and governmental offices all had experienced how limited connectivity impacted their ability to do business, let alone expand, innovate and grow.

Schools face the same needs and have the same opportunities. Access to high capacity affordable broadband has helped transform schools in other areas. Mooresville, N.C., is one example of a school system that embraces the potential of broadband. Mooresville ranks in the bottom 5 percent of schools for per pupil funding, but is in the top 5 percent both in test scores and graduation rates.

Great schools draw new residents and help build a reputation that makes the community attractive to investment in new and expanding businesses. Employers need a well-educated workforce to fill better paying, technology based jobs in a rapidly changing economy. The K-12 Fiber to Schools Grants Initiative was created by Metronet and nCloud to challenge and support schools as they experiment and innovate to improve outcomes.

Emphasis on Outcomes
Its emphasis on outcomes made Trinity the choice to receive the initiative’s first grant.While grants remove one difficult obstacle for schools by covering the cost of connecting to high speed and high capacity broadband, Cuggino said the initiative’s main goal is to challenge schools to excel. Schools that win grants must have specific plans to use the new connectivity to improve educational outcomes. They must demonstrate how those plans will be implemented, show how successes will be measured and accountability enforced, show that necessary training will be provided, that the staff will be engaged and supportive, and that funding is available both to implement the program and to continue it over time.

Trinity’s application met those challenges with plans as exotic as linking students to the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland to do real-time analysis of particle acceleration experiments, and as basic as allowing instructors to stream high definition video to classrooms. Winning schools must have or be able to provide the internal infrastructure to make use of the expanded broadband capacity. For Trinity, that meant extensive work over the summer to install network cables and additional wireless routers. Receipt of the grant allowed Trinity to apply for other grants to help offset these costs.

Connected Schools Reduce Costs by Sharing Staff, Resources

Connected schools also are able to reduce costs by sharing staff experience and expertise as well as other resources. The new connectivity will be paying off in exactly that way for Trinity, which is headquartered in South Bend but also has a school campus in Minnesota and another in Virginia. Since they share a common curriculum, plans are being made for master teachers at one campus, through videoconferencing or by shared access to recorded video, to teach classes at a sister school and to provide training and support to new instructors.

Since South Bend now has the fastest connectivity, plans are to house materials that can be shared, such as slides for an art history class, there to be accessed by other campuses. John Lee said the school was approached to open a fourth campus in New Jersey. Instead, Trinity is leasing its curriculum to The Wilberforce School and will use its Metronet connection to train and support staff there.

Trinity’s pre-algebra seventh grade students are joining tens of millions of students in more than 180 countries for the Hour of Code, billed as the largest educational event in history. Trinity’s new connectivity will enable its students to join this concentrated, worldwide focus on computer science education.

Around 35 St. Joseph County schools are near enough to the Metronet fiber network to make a connection economically feasible. The grants program was initiated with $100,000 in funding, enough to connect several schools in the first year. Metronet is committed to providing similar funding in subsequent years and unallocated funds will be rolled over to support future grant awards.