Schools have new network but some can’t take advantage 

click to enlarge San Francisco schools have a nice new fiber optic network, but not every school has computers suitable for using it. - MIKE KOOZMIN/SPECIAL TO THE SF EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/Special to The SF Examiner
  • San Francisco schools have a nice new fiber optic network, but not every school has computers suitable for using it.

Last May, The City’s public schools completed a network connecting them to the Internet at more than 650 times their former speed. Today, almost every school district building is plugged into a citywide ring of fiber optic cable.

“We’re finally in the 21st century,” said Erik Heinrich, the San Francisco Unified School District’s director of technology infrastructure.

But many schools can’t say the same thing about the computers they use to connect to their new network.

At Hoover Middle School, teachers recently started using educational software to tailor lessons to students’ needs. “We’re getting more and more excited about it,” said Principal Thomas Graven, who was thrilled to get the new fiber optic connection.

But while Hoover students and teachers like using the software, booting up the school’s outdated PCs frequently eats into instructional time.

The situation used to be far worse. Until recently, most district teachers could not use any streaming media in their classrooms. One YouTube video might have taken up all of a school’s available bandwidth, making it impossible for anyone else in the building to go online.

“That was extremely frustrating,” Heinrich said.

When he joined the district in 2007, he found that many schools were still using slow T1 Internet connections.

“You can imagine 2,500 students at Washington High School connecting at a sixth the speed of a residential connection,” he said.

The district paid for its new fiber optic network with about $1 million in federal subsidies and $800,000 from Proposition A, a voter-approved parcel tax. In January, the school board approved another Prop A project to upgrade every building’s network hardware and cables, a job that otherwise would have been the responsibility of each school. The district’s four-person IT staff will do the work, which is expected to cost $1.45 million and take 18 to 20 months.

Martin Gomez, principal at John O’Connell High School, is looking forward to that final upgrade.

“We have these awesome computers that are just waiting for the connections,” he said. “Just knowing that San Francisco is so close to Silicon Valley, it’s not as progressive as I thought with regard to technology. But we’re moving forward.”

This year, O’Connell paid for 60 new Macintosh desktops with money from a $1.6 million federal School Improvement Grant for schools that are struggling to raise test scores. Once connected, the computers will be used for online classes, including remedial lessons for students who fall behind and AP courses for advanced students.

“We’re lucky to have the funding,” Gomez said.

But Heinrich estimates that only 40 percent of schools have enough up-to-date computers to give every student access to a high-speed Internet connection. Schools that want new PCs must cobble together donations, grants and savings from their increasingly tight budgets. Because the district has no budget for computers, it’s a problem each school must tackle on its own.

Still, Heinrich noted, “no matter how they solve that last link in the chain, the network is there.”

What the network can do

1.544 Megabits per second: a T1 connection, formerly used at most schools

1 Gigabit per second: current fiber optic connection at each school

10 Gigabit per second: total bandwidth of the district’s fiber optic network

Source: SFUSD

District accepts computer donations

Because the San Francisco Unified School District does not have a budget for classroom computers, it’s usually up to officials at individual schools to figure out how to connect students with up-to-date technology. But the district’s IT staff also takes donations of working, modern computers, which are cleaned, refurbished and delivered to the schools that need them most.

Erik Heinrich, the SFUSD’s director of technology infrastructure, said last year his department distributed 120 refurbished computers to schools.  

“That’s a drop in the bucket for 120 school sites, each with computers that last only about four years before being underpowered or otherwise under par,” he added.

The district is also working with the San Francisco Bay Area Innovation Group to raise money for more refurbished computers, which will be provided by the nonprofit Computers for Classrooms. Visit to contribute.

— Amy Crawford

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