With population on the rise, Eastside schools are feeling the impact. Enrollment is up across the region, and district officials are working hard to ensure students’ access to technology doesn’t fall by the wayside.

Lake Washington School District celebrated a milestone last fall when enrollment reached an all-time high. From 2010-15, enrollment in the district had grown by an average of 625 students per year, but in 2016, nearly 1,200 new students enrolled in the district. This surge bumped Lake Washington School District up to the third-largest district in the state, surpassing Tacoma Public Schools by about 900 students.

At Lake Washington and other school districts on the Eastside, making space for students and staff certainly is the priority, but district officials also are looking at ways to ensure all these students — and teachers — don’t fall behind when it comes to technology. Their plan? Investing in infrastructure.

Lake Washington School District started investing in its infrastructure more than 10 years ago, and today is equipped with a private fiber, high-speed network. That’s something Sally Askman, the district’s director of technology, said is critical. “It enables us to have high-speed, high-bandwidth transactional activities going between our buildings and classrooms and out to the internet, our cloud providers, and our test providers. We have very little to no downtime.”
Askman said this type of connectivity is important because it encourages technology use among students and teachers. “In a regular setting where they don’t have a high-speed network, some users will choose to not really use the technology because it’s too slow and doesn’t always work,” she said. “Our network is very fast, and getting faster. We’re in the process of updating it over a three-year period.”

With such strong infrastructure, the district is able to provide its students and teachers with technology tools they’ll actually use. Currently, the district provides enough computers that every student in grades 6-12 can have his or her own. The devices are equipped with curricular tools and resources that make it easy for students to communicate with teachers, submit assignments, take state assessment tests, and more.

Other area districts are focusing on infrastructure, too, including Renton, which in 2013 decided not to invest in purchasing computers for each student until it had the bandwidth to support them. Renton has set a goal, outlined in its districtwide tech plan, of providing devices for all middle and high school students by the 2019-20 school year.

At neighboring Bellevue, a strong infrastructure has allowed that district to shift its focus toward devices and creating more personalized educational opportunities using technology.

Eric Ferguson, director of instructional technology at Bellevue School District, said he’s proud of what the district is doing to prepare students for the digital world. “Until recently, kids had so much exposure to tech in their homes and community, but when they went to school, we weren’t really using that tech to help support teaching and learning,” he said. “I’m proud and excited about the work that we’re doing around thinking about computer science for all students. We’re having students as early as elementary age learning how to code.”

By the start of the 2017-18 school year, Ferguson said, every middle and high school student in the Bellevue School District will have access to a computer at the same time, which will help personalize student learning. Next, the district is going to look at how it can use technology to expand these personalized educational opportunities to elementary students.

Surrounded by major tech companies such as Microsoft and Google, local school districts understand the importance of preparing their students for careers in the tech industry. But both Askman and Ferguson said the districts wouldn’t be able to provide this level of access to technology without the support of the community. “One of the benefits we have in Bellevue is that the funding for most of our tech initiatives comes from a tech levy that our Bellevue voters voted for that allows us to build that infrastructure and pay for the cost of these devices,” said Ferguson.

“We’re fortunate that we have a lot of parents that are also tech employees who understand what it takes to provide and support tech and what it enables,” said Askman.

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of “425 Business.”

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