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Columbus School District to receive $100K to upgrade broadband network

June 9, 2018 GMT

Through a state grant, students and staff in the Columbus School District will have an easier time getting online for the upcoming school year.

On May 21, Gov. Scott Walker announced that 252 school districts across the state will receive Technology for Educational Achievement (TEACH) Information Technology Infrastructure grants. The total funding package includes $7.8 million for technology upgrades. Columbus received one of the highest amounts - $43,903 – to replace its broadband internet system.

Chet Bembenek, director of technology for Columbus schools, is excited to receive the funding and is looking forward to the upgrades.

“This is our second year we’ve been awarded,” Bembenek said. “We were awarded less last year but we didn’t have as much to do. Replacing the broadband structure is a big piece.”

Last year, the district was granted TEACH funding to replace switch equipment for its online network.

“This year we’re replacing our whole wireless infrastructure,” Bembenek said, smiling. “It was a big award; I was excited when it came through.”

According to Bembenek, Columbus will also get federal assistance through the E-rate program. With the TEACH grant and E-rate package, Columbus schools will receive more than $100,000 to replace its wireless system.

“Our whole wireless project will be paid for by E-rate funding and TEACH grant, so it will be zero dollars coming out of the district budget in order to purchase that equipment,” Bembenek said. “It’s a pretty cool piece of funding.”

Bembenek said the district is already making plans to apply for another TEACH grant next year. Districts have to apply for the grant and meet certain criteria to obtain funding.

The program was created in 2016 and, according to a press release from Walker’s office, has awarded more than $13 million to Wisconsin schools. According to the release, grants for fiscal year 2018 were eligible to school districts with 16 or fewer students per square mile. Funding amounts rewarded to districts were determined by the amount of students in a district.

The funding push is part of the governor’s initiative to increase rural broadband access in Wisconsin communities.

“We are investing more actual dollars into public classrooms than ever before,” Walker said in the release. “Increased technology in the classroom will help our students excel and further position Wisconsin to win in the 21st Century.”

For Columbus, the funding will be used to replace 150 wireless access points throughout district buildings. Each access point is set up though small, white boxes, called peas, attached to the ceiling. Most students probably don’t realize the boxes are there but they serve as an important learning tool. Bembenek said the broadband upgrades give students faster, more efficient access to information from almost anywhere in the district.

“We will order the (equipment) in July and we’ll implement them so the new system will be up before school starts,” Bembenek said. “We’ll have all 158 peas up, hung and functioning by then. It’s pretty doable because we just need to hang the new one where the old one once was.”

In addition to more reliable internet access, students will receive new Chromebook laptop computers this fall. Columbus has ordered about 1,100 new devices which will be shipped to Columbus by July 1. Bembenek said laptops should be available before the first day of school Sept. 4.

“The kids are pretty excited,” Bembenek said. “They keep asking us about it because they’ve heard rumors about what we’re buying, so they’re excited and looking forward to the new device.

“The goal of all these programs is giving kids the access they need to do their research … to have quality internet access, that’s a big deal. And also getting good devices in their hands so they can get to the internet.”