Montclair school district is working to upgrade its aging technology infrastructure
Last year, the Montclair school district began its one-to-one Chromebook initiative, providing every student with a Chromebook for in-class instruction. In June, the district announced it had received funding to provide students with year-round devices and connectivity, providing students and families with Chromebooks and WiFi during the summer months.
Now the district’s technology department is shifting its focus to upgrading and improving the district’s network infrastructure — almost a decade old, many of the district’s WiFi access points, switches and other connectivity devices must be replaced.
“Our infrastructure is old, and we are putting in a lot of effort with finding grants, looking in our budget to enhance our infrastructure,” schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said at the Montclair Board of Education's annual retreat, on Aug. 8. “It’s one of our things we’re struggling with, and we need to make that happen for us to continue to move forward as a district.”
The district is using E-rate funding, a program through the federal schools and libraries universal support program, to update its existing infrastructure, according to a presentation by Christopher Graber, the district’s technology director, at the Aug. 8 meeting.
Through the program, districts are allotted a certain discount for network equipment, based upon the district’s student population with free or reduced lunch. The Montclair school district was given a 40% discount — discounts range from 20% to 90%, according to the program’s page on the Federal Communications Commission’s website.
But the program also puts a cap on how much money each district can receive in reimbursement, and for Montclair, that totaled about $1.1 million, Graber said at the Aug. 8 meeting. According to Graber, the district has met that total — replacing 150 access points and licensing, along with battery backups to ensure the network remains intact at all times.
“Infrastructure is paramount,” Graber said. “We have all this stuff on our network and now we need to have a secure network and a network that’s capable of taking on all these devices.”
The district is also working to install Cisco Firepower, a next-generation firewall that will better equip the district to support all its devices and connectivity needs, and implement security enhancements, like anti-virus software and two-factor authentication tools, Graber said.
Designing, implementing and sustaining a secure network is one of the technology department’s ongoing goals, Graber told board members at the Aug. 8 meeting. But another goal of the department is to “develop, test and document a well-structured and easily understood disaster recovery plan.”
Currently, the district backs up its data each night to a third-party server. But “that’s small potatoes in regards to a full disaster recovery plan,” Graber said.
Neighboring school districts have had to spend millions of dollars as a result of malware, Graber said. And other districts’ networks have been down for weeks or even months after an attack, he said.
So Graber and his team are planning for the worst — creating additional copies of district data, acquiring additional servers, looking into cybersecurity insurance and developing a plan for restoring services in the event of an emergency.
“It’s really important from a security perspective to come up with a really good contingency plan, a disaster recovery plan, in the event something happens,” Graber said. “We’re trying to be proactive.”
The final goal of the technology department is to provide students with “the opportunity to connect with each other and the world through technology in the classroom,” according to Graber’s presentation.
In practice, this means the technology team will continue to distribute devices to district families and assess technology needs. This year, all kindergarten, sixth and ninth grade students will receive new Chromebooks when they arrive at school, part of an effort to cycle new devices into student’s hands, Graber said.
The technology department will also continue its work with district administrators to plan and roll out digital literacy lessons via tech coordinators and computer teachers, Graber said.