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Rated "E" For Effort

E-Rate Success Enhances SMART Utilization in Evangeline Parish Schools

When the government launched E-Rate, a program that provides discounts to assist schools in the U.S. to obtain affordable telecommunications and Internet access, it must have had school administrators such as Skyla Menard in mind. Menard is a SMART Exemplary Educator and the designated technology coordinator for E-Rate applications at the Evangeline Parish School Board (EPSB) in Ville Patte, Louisiana. She is responsible for all of the technology in the district's 12 schools, which has a total of approximately 6,000 students, 500 teachers, and 1,000 employees.

Under Menard's tutelage, EPSB saves approximately $700,000 per year using E-Rate, the commonly used name for the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, which is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company under the direction of the FCC.

The Schools and Libraries Program supports connectivity—the pipeline for communications—using telecommunications services and/or the Internet. "My job is to request funding under a number of categories including telecommunications, Internet access, internal connections, and basic maintenance," says Menard. "E-Rate allows us to provide Internet access and network capabilities throughout our schools, administrative offices, and classrooms."

Discounts for support depend on the level of financial hardship in the district, along with the urban/rural status of the population served. The discounts can range from 20 percent to 90 percent of the costs of eligible services. According to Menard, EPSB qualifies for an 84 percent discount.

The E Ticket
While E-Rate savings are clearly worthwhile, navigating the process to access those discounts can be a daunting task. For example, it can be a challenge, according to Menard, to keep up with the rules guiding eligibility for the program. Each year, the program publishes a list of eligible services and how to secure funding, which Menard reviews to determine what will best suit the needs of EPSB. For instance, say Menard, cell phones that were not on E-Rate might suddenly become eligible. When she qualifies for new discounts, "those savings can go to purchase computers or SMART Board interactive whiteboards for the classroom."

Menard's efforts have paid off handsomely for EPSB. She reports that during the past several years, the district has saved close to $3.5 million using E-Rate. This year, once again, she expects to save another $700,000.

The benefits of E-Rate, however, are measured in more than just dollars, Menard asserts. "I don't see how we could provide this level of connectivity if we didn't qualify for E-Rate. Having Internet access in our classrooms and being able to interact with Web sites and all of the associated resources are things we can't do without."

Menard continues, "In today's world, students don't learn the way they did a generation ago. Today, even young children can pick up a cell phone and navigate menus that confound most adults. Everything happens at a faster pace. For example, recently, we had an opportunity to visit with the people from SMART Technologies at our state conference. We brought some students with us who'd never seen a SMART Board ™, and they were immediately able to navigate on the board without training or instruction. It demonstrates the way "digital natives" think. Without E-Rate, we would not be able to install network services and Internet capabilities in all of our classrooms. That would be a great injustice to our students. Having that technology available in our classrooms allows our teachers to enhance their instructional strategies and use digital resources that far exceed the reach of books, pencils, and paper."
SMART Choices
To qualify for the E-Rate discounts, Menard is obliged to provide appropriate software, professional teacher development, and end-user equipment, such as SMART Board™ interactive whiteboards, computers, telephones, and other elements necessary to use the connectivity funded by the Schools and Libraries Program.

Today, Menard is focusing on providing SMART Board interactive whiteboards in all of the district's classrooms. "The SMART Board is one piece of equipment that we've continued to acquire," she says. "If I tried to take any of the SMART Boards away from teachers who have them now, they'd want me fired. The teachers love SMART and so do the kids. One teacher told me that she had a student who would never participate, but when a SMART Board was put in her classroom, the student started participating—and there were fewer discipline referrals. This proves what I've been telling my teachers: ‘get your students engaged in the learning process. You'll have fewer discipline problems, and they'll retain more information.' Kids want to learn using SMART; it's fun for them."

According to Menard, SMART Board interactive whiteboards are the perfect complement to the connectivity funded through E-Rate. "Having Internet access means that teachers using SMART Boards can get to an unlimited number of online resources just by touching a finger to the board. The teacher can link it to an object on a Web page, and the kids start rolling—whether that's an interactive Web site, streaming video, or any other resources online."

Rated "E" for Effort
A seasoned veteran of the E-Rate application process, Menard cautions those interested in qualifying for the program to stay current on the program's rules to avoid disappointment. Further, she advises care in filling out the reams of forms and documents required to gain access to the discounts. "It's definitely a huge task, but well worth the time and effort," says Menard. "It's important to follow all of the rules and guidelines. If the rules aren't followed, it could cost the district all of the funding for that year and prior years."

When Menard first began, she was overwhelmed. She recalls asking herself, “"What did I get myself into?" To become proficient, she reached out to others with experience in E-Rate applications. Today, Menard is the expert, and she's finding new technologies to add to the district's technical capabilities. For instance, this year Menard carefully examined the eligible services list and applied for and secured Voice over IP (VoIP) services, something EPSB would never have been able to secure without E-Rate. VoIP will give EPSB access to even more sophisticated services while saving the district additional funds.

Now that Menard is E-Rate savvy, she has plans to acquire a myriad of eligible technology for the district, including additional servers, and handsets in classrooms, as well as increased bandwidth and cabling for administrative offices.

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