Though She Be Little…
Most things E-rate usually end up boiling down to numbers. For Western Heights, the numbers may tell a different story than you might expect.
Eight—the number of schools in the small, western Oklahoma City school district. 3,484—the number of students out of approximately 3,500 who receive free or reduced lunch throughout the district. 17—the number of miles of fiber-optic cabling uniting the district providing a 100MB Internet connection and remote learning capability to every classroom within Western Heights Public Schools.
Far from a titan in numbers, the district is led by a giant of sorts on the technology frontier. Joe Kitchens has served as Western Heights Public Schools superintendent since 1995. Since taking the helm of the district, Kitchens has proven to be an active advocate for the E-rate program and the benefits the E-rate provides schools.
Most recently, he accompanied Funds For Learning CEO, John Harrington, and other members of the E-rate Reform Coalition in a meeting with FCC staff on February 25. The future of the E-rate program was the prevailing theme among the topics discussed.
In the program’s infancy, Kitchens hosted workshops to assist school leaders, technological directors and other superintendents better understand the E-rate program and the impact technology can have on students’ success in the classroom—topics, to which Kitchens was no stranger.
Western Heights Public Schools has been established as a leader in utilizing emerging technologies in innovative ways and using the E-rate program by leveraging the support to create a robust, technological learning environment for its students.
Looking tight budgets, ever-advancing technologies and student needs squarely in the face, the district has been able to affect change within its schools. For example, students have benefitted from watching a space launch and other newsworthy events, live from their computer monitors, being able to attend class remotely when confined to their homes due to illness or injury, and participating in virtual tours from other parts of the world through videoconferencing.
These and other trailblazing strides garnered the attention of Consortium for School Networking (COSN), the Computerworld Honors Program and co-founder and former Microsoft CEO, Bill Gates. Respectively, COSN heralded Kitchens as Educator of the Year in 2001, Computerworld selected the district as Oklahoma’s first K-12 Computerworld Smithsonian Laureate, and Gates highlighted Kitchens and Western Heights Public Schools in his book, Business @ the Speed of Thought.
As a member of the E-rate Reform Coalition, Kitchens understands the importance of the E-rate program and the role technology plays in education. Though the district has been on the cutting edge of integrating connectivity and education, it is not achieved without difficulties.
Among them are some of the current E-rate regulations and practices. Issues such as the eligible services list, priority system and disproportionate funding proclivities are all hurdles Western Heights, and many other schools and libraries, have to circumvent as a result of the present state of a program whose central purpose is to help them.
The E-rate coalition, comprised of some of the largest districts in the U.S. as well as small districts, represents over 1,600 schools and 1 million students. Western Heights is counted among them. The district is currently facing the challenge of meeting the demand that online testing places upon their current network infrastructure. Though a task that is in line with President Obama’s ConnectED initiative and the FCC’s attempt to modernize the E-rate program, because the project to address the increased online demand is categorized as Priority 2 under the current priority system, it is highly unlikely to receive E-rate support.
Lack of funds, a system that incentivizes over-spending, disproportionate funding commitments and prioritization that limits schools and libraries more than it helps are all evidence that E-rate reform is not an issue that exists in a vacuum. It is a need that affects educational institutions and millions of students across the country.
A devoted advocate of the E-rate program as well as its reform, Kitchens is pressing forward in developing the digital learning community to which he has been integral at Western Heights Public Schools. Already providing iPads to each teacher in the district as well as high school seniors, the district is looking to increase computer devices from 2,000 to 4,000 within the next four years.
Though Western Heights Public Schools may be considered little, through the leadership of Joe Kitchens, the district is fierce in its dedication to utilizing varying sources of support, including the E-rate program, to fuel the use of technology in the development and education of its students.