Today's job opportunities are elementary (and middle and secondary)

May 1, 2002
Recently, I have received many requests (and resumes-please don't send resumes) from designers and installers who were very busy for the past few years, and now are not so busy. This one is for you.

Recently, I have received many requests (and resumes-please don't send resumes) from designers and installers who were very busy for the past few years, and now are not so busy. This one is for you.

Are you looking for work? Have you been looking in all the wrong places? Do you know who is building and remodeling a lot of (soon-to-be IT-savvy) square feet right now? Well, it's elementary-and middle and high schools.

Public school districts in the U.S. spent $21 billion on construction projects completed during the 2000 calendar year, and plan to spend another $20 billion on construction projects started in the 2001 calendar year, with the bulk of those projects reporting completions in 2002, 2003, and even 2004. Like the economy in general, school construction may be slowing over the next few years, but is still expected to remain in the $20 billion range, which is roughly twice what it was just six years ago. With three quarters of the dollars going for construction of new spaces-new schools and additions to existing buildings-there has got to be a lot of work in K-12.

Why? Because the K-12 school population is now at its highest level ever. Add to this pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten programs, plus an increase in the number of special-needs students being accommodated, and you can see that the demands for additional space seem endless.

And unlike businesses, whose expansion funds must be either earned or borrowed, most public schools are funded by state and federal appropriations and taxes, which are tied to real property valuations. These property valuations went up with the boom economy and have reduced only slightly (in most areas of the U.S.) since the bust.

What are we likely to see designed into these new K-12 schools? All new elementary, middle, and high school buildings will have classrooms and offices. Virtually all will have facilities for physical education. Almost all will have some type of infirmary or nurse's station. Nearly all high schools and many middle schools will have science laboratories, computer laboratories, and gymnasiums. While elementary schools will not have science laboratories, many will have computer laboratories and gymnasiums, which tend to be multi-purpose rooms, used for physical education and for food service. Practically all elementary schools will have a library or a media center. Technology is not only in specialized laboratories, but also in the classrooms. Hence, virtually all new schools will have local area networks, and many will be connected to wide area networks.

What do K-12 educators want from a technology system? Unlike most highly paid corporate executives, who always seem to want their IT connections in the middle of the floor, most K-12 educators are practical folks who will arrange their activities to suit the amenities of their space. Our task is to design and install the appropriate amenities into the space.

K-12 educators want a system that is easy to use. Most educators perform their own IT reconfigurations. So, we need to keep it simple! As I see it, the simplest connection between two points is a patch cord. For example, if a network switch was located in a telecommunications enclosure located within a classroom, then the educator could connect from the front of the switch to a computer with a patch cord.

But K-12 administrators require a system that is standards-based to align with state and national guidelines.

Standards...but what standards? While TIA's Commercial Building Cabling standards have been used as references for every sort of imaginable project-office building to airport to dairy farm-that does not make them a slam-dunk for K-12.

Remember Net-Day-Next-Day? We all saw the stories in the press about volunteers cabling their children's schools, but not all the Net-Day-Next-Day installations were success stories. I believe that a written "guide" addressing cabling infrastructure for K-12 would have been valuable.

The TIA's Commercial Building Cabling standards can certainly be used to get the IT infrastructure to the work area-in this case the classroom-but then differences begin to emerge. One example: in the commercial office environment, office workers are usually trying to create a sense of privacy in their cubicles, but educators and students need to be able to see each other.

Research on learning styles indicates that a large segment of our population consists of visual learners-students who gain most of their learning through the sense of sight. Being able to see the illustrations, board work, presentations, demonstrations and, of course, the educator (especially important for lip readers) is key to learning.

Most educators can look a student in the eye and know he or she is paying attention, but keeping everyone on task in the computer classroom is challenging. The first educational computers had petite, 10-inch screens, which progressed to 12 inches, then to 13 inches and to 15 inches. Now, the standard monitors are 17 inches, and simply block the line of sight between student and educator.

And then there is the problem of the educator being able to hear student questions. When students speak, they are talking directly to the computer monitor. The sound becomes muffled and distorted. This is a little bit like trying to hold a conversation with someone who is talking with a hand over the mouth-here again, the opposite of the commercial office environment where many office workers would welcome the break from the neighbor's telephone conversations.

Before, you may not have thought about students being lost behind their computer monitors, but now that you know, what can you do to lower the technology wall? Get creative. To view the collaborative results between an educator with the problem and a manufacturer willing to help solve it, see

Currently, there are several "mission-specific" standards being written in TR-42 based on the cabling components specified by TR-42.7 and TR-42.8. With this precedent in place, I contacted Bob Jensen, chair of the TIA TR-42, regarding the possibility of adding cabling infrastructure for K-12 to their current work on data centers and industrial infrastructure. Jensen agreed to place

K-12 cabling infrastructure on the TR-42 agenda for discussion at the group's June meeting.

Yes, now may be a really good time to go back to school,- elementary, middle, and high school, that is.

Click here to enlarge image

Donna Ballast is BICSI's standards representative, and a BICSI registered communications distribution designer (RCDD). Send your questions to Donna via e-mail: [email protected].

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