Step by Step

May 8th, 2020

“It’s simple, really,” says Pete Just, Chief Operations and Technology Officer for the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis. “We look at the barriers that prevent our students from succeeding and work to remove them.” It’s a remarkably effective approach. Over the last eight years, the district has moved step-by-step from a 62% graduation rate on up to 91%, which is more than six points higher than the national average. That’s despite the fact that, in Wayne MSD, students speak more than 70 languages at home, 71% are minority members, and 76% qualify for the federal free-lunch program.

Sometimes, Just says, a solution is straightforward. “If we have kids who are hungry, they’re not going to learn. So in addition to free lunches, we offer free breakfasts and, in some cases, free dinners, to fill in that gap.”

Or in seeing the amount of time and money the district was spending to maintain its aging projector fleet, he looked for a better way. “When Casio brought out its LampFree projectors, I thought, ‘no bulbs, no filters, no regular maintenance – what a fantastic idea!’”

Moving to Casio helped solve another major problem: budget. How do you afford Chromebooks for every student or pay for a better-than-average teaching staff? When you start adding up the savings Casio provides on costly labor, filters and lamps, you can quickly see how much more you can afford to improve classroom learning. Yet no matter what sorts of initiatives you may have in mind, Just explains that you have to keep your eyes on the prize.

“Our goal is success for every one of our students. We want each of them not only to graduate, but to develop a good sense of self, a good sense of purpose, and a feeling of competence in learning, because that will serve them throughout their lives.”

Solar Power

Not every change is as easy as switching technologies. In some cases, taking a step forward requires a major investment in planning, implementation and budget. For example, “When we realized we had students falling asleep in class because they had to work nights, we started an online learning program,” Just explains. The program, which normally serves more than 300 students full time and another 500 part time, allows those with challenging schedules to learn at those hours of the day or night that work best for them.

Having the online program has been a tremendous help with the COVID-19 epidemic. Just and his team were able to ramp it up to serve all 16,500 of their students with more than 2,000 classes during the first weeks of the crisis. Another big step was the decision to install a solar farm that is now providing almost 85% of the energy for the district’s Ben Davis High School, which is the largest in the state. This high-profile investment saves money, provides students important learning opportunities and helps the district be a better citizen of its community. The farm consists of two main components. The solar field consists of 7,200 photovoltaic panels installed on a property adjoining the high school’s football field. There’s also a peak shaving plant consisting of two 750 kilowatt natural gas generators installed on the same property.

Peak shaving is a major source of savings because, while electric utilities charge their commercial and educational customers for the total amount of electricity they use, they also charge based on how much extra energy the customer pulls from the grid during high-demand periods. This is called a demand charge, and it’s billed at a higher rate. Peak shaving saves money by flattening how much extra demand is pulled from the grid. Historically, Ben Davis High School would pull 1,500 kW during normal periods but an extra 3,500 kW during peak summer months. With the generators, they can flatten this demand to 1,500 kW year-round, savings the school about $46,500 per month during the summer.

Between the solar panels and the peak shaving plant, Wayne MSD has cut its utility bills by about $800,000 each year. The total investment of $5 million will pay for itself within 15 years but has a lifespan of 25 to 30, meaning that the district will save at least $8 million over its lifetime. It’s a great investment by any measure and it significantly lowers the district’s carbon footprint.

There’s another big bonus: Wayne MSD makes real time data from the installation available to the teaching staff, and it’s used in science, math, social studies and business classes. “We have an amazing science teacher, Rick Crosslin, who has built a unit on solar power which he teaches to all of our students grades three to eight,” Just explains. Crosslin offers his science classes across the district using Adobe Connect, but then travels from school to school for hands-on projects, including a lab where students build their own miniature solar plants.

Laser Projectors

The switch to Casio laser/LED projectors garners far less publicity but has been extremely helpful. It is providing teachers a more reliable, very large-screen display, saving money, conserving energy, and freeing the technology staff from the enormous drain of supporting traditional bulb-based projectors.

“We started putting projectors in all 1200 of our classrooms back in 1999,” Just recalls. It wasn’t long before they became so important that, if a bulb burned out or a projector failed, the teacher would have to improvise until it was fixed—often up to two days or more despite the technology staff’s best efforts. Of course, the bulbs were expensive and the projectors would deteriorate because of the high heat under which they operated. Maintenance was always a drain, with bulbs to replace, filters to clean, and not-infrequent repairs to deal with regularly.

“I had been watching the development of the Casio technology, and so, when the price dropped into a range I could justify, we jumped on it,” Just recalls. That first purchase was in 2016, with the district replacing its last bulb-based projectors with the Casio XJ-F211WN Advanced model in the spring of 2020.

“The brightness of these projectors is remarkable,” he says. While the Casio and a traditional projector may start out at the same lumen output, a projection bulb will use half its brightness in one to two years, while the Casio is at about 70% of its original brightness after ten years.

“I was talking to a principal the other day, in one of the first schools we installed Casio. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘those projectors look just as good today as the first day we used them!’” Just had been replacing projectors on a six year rotation, “but we already know they’re going to last a lot longer than that.”

He adds that he does not believe he’s had a single Casio projector fail in the three years he’s been using them. At the same time, he’s been tracking the time his staff is spending on maintenance. “We’re saving an enormous amount of time not changing lamps, filters, or failed projectors—easily two full time equivalents each year. “The total cost of ownership is always worth the investment. In the long run, it helps by allowing us to use our money elsewhere, to invest in something good that we couldn’t otherwise afford.