Every classroom in the 170,000-student Philadelphia School District has wireless Internet capabilities under a $40 million project completed last month - one of the world's largest networks of its kind, according to industry and school district officials.
The school district initiative, 75 percent of which was funded by the federal government's E-Rate program, advances the district's efforts to modernize its classrooms.
Meru Networks of California, one of two companies that worked with the district on the project, isn't aware of a larger initiative of its kind, although some other school systems have plans for one, said Rachna Ahlawat, vice president for strategic marketing.
A U.S. Department of Education official yesterday said Philadelphia was one of the largest school systems known to have implemented wireless technology in every classroom.
The project, which included the installation of 16,500 radio transmitters in schools and district offices, doesn't mean that every classroom in the district has computers. But any that do can hook up to the district's Internet access with proper school district credentials. The wireless services are not accessible to outsiders, Ahlawat said.
The district also took steps yesterday to continue its efforts to modernize classrooms and infuse more technology in schools. The School Reform Commission approved borrowing $41.6 million at a bargain 1.25 percent interest rate to upgrade technology in nearly 1,400 middle-grade and high school classrooms. A $4.1 million donation from Apple allowed the district to apply for the funds through the competitive loan program.
Several classrooms in each of 151 of the district's 268 schools - most of them grades six through eight - will be affected. About 700 of them will get interactive white boards, computers, projectors and other technology, beginning in the spring. The rest of the classrooms will get the infrastructure to support that technology with plans to add the equipment through further state funding.
The new technology, already available in some schools, will allow schools to educate children in new and different ways.
An algebra teacher at Vaux High School is using software that allows students to visualize mathematical equations on laptops.
A Spanish teacher elsewhere in the district has had her students communicate with Spanish students in another state.
The technology also allows students to write and edit documents as a group. And both students and teachers can use video and audio as part of their classroom presentations.
"Having the opportunity to stream in video focusing on the topic you're teaching is very powerful," said Fran Newberg, the district's executive director of educational technology.
Newberg said every school with middle grades "will see the presence of the technology."
The amount of technology will be allotted based on student enrollments, she said. For example, a school with 600 students would get six modernized classrooms and three laptop carts, she said.
Classrooms will be chosen based on teachers' interest in and ability to use the technology and "think differently about instruction," Newberg said.
The district previously accessed state funds to modernize some classrooms in its high schools.
Although the district is strapped for cash, Sandra Dungee Glenn, chairwoman of the School Reform Commission, called the purchase a worthwhile investment that would make more classrooms "state of the art."
"This will be able to move us in a very aggressive way, so it's well worth it," she said.
Of the district's 10,000 classrooms, nearly 3,300, or about a third, will have been upgraded at the end of the three-year project under the borrowing approved yesterday and other classroom-modernization programs, district officials said.
The school district has about 41,000 computers, about 10,000 which are new, high-capacity models, Newberg said. About 15,000 are mid-level computers, and about 16,000 are low level. The computer inventory includes 150 carts with about 20 to 30 laptops each, officials said. About 20 percent of the schools have access to the laptops, Newberg said.
School commissioners also acknowledged yesterday for the first time that they might not meet their self-imposed Dec. 31 deadline for selecting a new chief executive officer, but would come close, Dungee Glenn said.
The commission, she said, is continuing to interview candidates. It likely will make the identities of finalists public when it presents their names to a 40-member citizens' advisory committee, which will meet with the finalists. Dungee Glenn said she wasn't sure when the commission would select the finalists.