It was early in 2009, as Congress debated what would turn out to be a $787 billion spending plan to help the ailing economy, that Sheryl Abshire and her colleagues at the Calcasieu Parish public school system in Louisiana started making plans.
"When we saw that there was an opportunity for public school districts [to secure federal stimulus funds], we started planning around what would make sense, what would bring long-term benefits to the district and students," Abshire, the CTO of the 32,000-plus student school district, said in an interview.
What they decided was to create connected classrooms that include Dell's new Latitude 2100 netbooks, ActivBoard interactive whiteboards from Promethean and multimedia laptops for teachers. The school district, headquartered in Lake Charles, La., started receiving equipment over the summer and began training teachers on it before school began. When the project is completed sometime in 2010, Abshire expects that Calcasieu Parish will have spent between $3 million and $3.5 million in ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) money.
"Now [teachers] will have the technology to engage the children at a very high level," she said. "Children are very digitally [knowledgeable], and they expect to be engaged and challenged, not just by books."
Calcasieu Parish is one of a growing number of school districts around the country looking to take advantage of federal stimulus funds to bring technology into their buildings, according to officials with Dell and Hewlett-Packard.
Larry Singer, vice president of SLED (State Local Education Division) and public health business at HP, said there isn't a "mad rush" by school districts for the money yet, but there are pockets of systems that are looking to save money through such projects as consolidation and virtualization.
"The ones who are out in front [of the trend] are the ones who want to save money," Singer said in an interview.
Mark Horan, vice president and general manager of Dell's K12 Education unit, agreed. Like Singer, he said he expects school officials to take a harder look at the stimulus money as the second half of the school year begins after the holiday break, as they readjust their spending and start looking at what they'll want to do in the 2010-11 school year.
For many of these school systems, by the time the ARRA money became available, their budgets for the current year had already been set.
"I think we've got a lot of schools trying to figure out the stimulus money and how to get to it," Horan said. "People are still trying to get their ducks in a row."
The education sector is an important one for both vendors, Singer and Horan said. Dell in May rolled out its Latitude 2100 netbooks built specifically for schools with such features as a durable case, network activity light, remote management, touch-screen capabilities and a starting price that comes in at $369.
It's also a key technology behind Dell's Connected Classroom initiative that includes the netbook, whiteboards from Promethean and other technologies.
Dell also offers school districts help in negotiating the process of applying for federal stimulus money or in writing grants to help secure money for technology in the classroom, Horan said.
Singer said he is seeing school district demand for technology in several areas, including for upgrading current systems to more energy- and cost-efficient ones, such as HP's new generation ProLiant G6 systems, which offer greater performance and less power consumption than its predecessors. HP also is seeing interest in smart technologies-such as electronic whiteboards in the classroom-and networking technology to improve the communication and teaching capabilities in the schools, Singer said.
Hillsborough County Public Schools system, an HP customer headquartered in Tampa, Fla., is looking to spend $23 million to $24 million to upgrade the IT infrastructure for its 90 or so schools and 192,000-plus students.
In particular, the county wants to bring greater networking capabilities to the schools to enhance the classroom experience for its students through greater use of such technologies as video, improve communications for students and teachers, and give students access to centrally located storage, according to David Smith, a manager within the school district's IT division.
For example, the networking backbone for all high schools and middle schools will be upgraded to 10 Gigabit Ethernet, while the backbone for elementary schools will be 1GE with Fast Ethernet to the desktops, Smith said in an interview.
"We're now going to get high-quality throughput across the board," he said.
Some of the stimulus money also will go to staff training. About 800 teachers received training during the summer, Smith said.
When school officials were trying to figure out how to use the stimulus money, they determined they wanted to find a solution that would lead to quick improvements for students and staff, but would not be a continuous drain on the school budget.
"It's all stuff that we will, once it's in place, be able to support, but it doesn't count on funds [being] recurring funds," Smith said.
The target date for the network upgrades is the summer of 2010, he said.
Much of the school system's IT infrastructure is HP equipment, he said, including more than 240 ProLiant ML 350 servers and switches from 3Com, which HP is in the process of buying for $2.7 billion.
Both Smith and Calcasieu Parish's Abshire said the federal stimulus money is opening up an opportunity that they wanted to take advantage of.
"It would have been absolutely impossible without the stimulus money," Abshire said.