Saugus Union School District Turns to Cisco Meraki to Power Digital Transformation, Mobility, and Security
There’s something special about returning to the place you grew up. I grew up in the Santa Clarita Valley and came back more than 10 years ago. Only this time, instead of attending school, I’m on the other side, running the network that makes everything hum as Director of Information Services at the Saugus Union School District.
Saugus Union School District is made up of about 10,000 students attending 16 elementary schools from kindergarten through grade six, along with preschool. When I went to school, they were making copies on mimeograph machines. A lot of students and teachers went home at the end of the day with purple ink on their hands. Now, my four-person team is charged with pushing the envelope on technology and transforming the school district into one of the most forward-thinking schools in the area.
The Start of a Digital Transformation
Saugus used to operate as a hub-spoke network where all schools connected to the district office. Ten years ago, schools didn’t have a lot of technology in the classroom, so they didn’t need a lot of bandwidth and speed. During a network refresh, I decided to break the existing setup and give every school its own internet connection. That way, if anything happened to the hub, the schools would be able to continue to operate online. With technology becoming more integrated into classrooms, it made sense to break down that single point of failure.
That’s no easy task when you consider there are 16 schools and as many as 500 classrooms, all of which now have their own dedicated wireless access point.
In search of the right solution for our network refresh, we talked to several vendors, including Cisco. I had worked with Cisco products before and had been happy with the quality and reliability of the equipment. After a careful evaluation, we decided to become a full-stack Cisco Meraki network.
One of the things we liked about the Cisco Meraki solution was that even though each school had its own connection, we could complete configurations from a centralized location without having to do on-site visits. Currently, our site techs spend little to no time troubleshooting network problems compared to one hour a day before implementing Cisco Meraki solutions. Meraki’s cloud-based management platform provides comprehensive visibility across the entire network, including wired and wireless devices without having to deploy expensive controllers or overlay management systems.
The plug-and-play aspect is also a significant benefit when it comes to adding new devices. If we set something up and want to install an access point, we just plug it in, and it phones home, gets its configuration, and starts working right away.
Faster Speeds and Greater Reliability
As part of the refresh, we upgraded to the latest Cisco Meraki equipment, providing faster speeds and even greater reliability, especially for access points and switchgear. We were also able to aggregate two network ports to get more throughput, and we needed it. Schools quickly transitioned from having no tech in the classroom to today’s connected environment where every student has their own Chromebook.
Reliability is crucial in a connected classroom. You might have 30 students firing up that Chromebook, looking at YouTube videos or textbooks. It is vitally important that we have reliable network access in every classroom at all times.
We made the decision to move to Cisco Meraki before there was any discussion of Chromebooks hitting the classroom. But when we added 1:1 Chromebooks for students, we were ready. With our plan already in place, I looked like a genius because the system adapted so well. But I can't really take all kinds of foresight credit. The flexibility in the Cisco Meraki system helped make it happen.
Creating a Secure Online Environment
While an increased presence of technology in the classroom can aid learning, it’s not without its risks. School districts are often prime targets for cybercriminals, especially those conducting ransomware attacks. More than 2,000 school networks were compromised in 2022, roughly double the number of K–12 schools that saw attacks in 2021.
With thousands of students online daily in the district, I knew we needed a robust firewall solution to keep the networks secure. Cisco Meraki firewalls continuously monitor and filter traffic, and are constantly updated to detect and prevent emerging threats.
We were using proxy servers and a bunch of other antiquated technologies prior to going with the Cisco Meraki firewall. We saw other districts get hit with malware by leaving ports open and knew we had to modernize.
We're a K–6 district, so our students are 12 years and under. Our schools see 10,000 students on the internet every day. Not having a robust firewall in that environment would open us up to all kinds of problems. So, the fact that the Cisco Meraki firewalls are constantly updated with threat detection keeps our kids safe.
Up Next: the Phone Systems
With an updated and secure network, it was time to turn attention to the outdated phone system. We were still running a bell system that required a Windows 95 PC to make changes—a significant security risk based on an end-of-life product. If you wanted to change the bells to rings at a certain time, it required onsite programming with a machine.
We evaluated IP-based phone systems to upgrade and modernize their telephony and opted for the Cisco Unified Communications Gateway. This enabled VoIP calling, end-to-end encryption, and enhanced mobility by extending advanced calling features to staff no matter where they work. At the same time, the district benefits from collaboration services to make staying connected easier than ever.
During COVID, this became especially important as parents needed to contact staff that weren’t working at the school. We used the Cisco Jabber integration to reroute the calls to those working remotely. The Cisco phone system allowed administrators to work securely without missing a call.
This became crucial during COVID lockdowns. While students were at home, often my team were the only people roaming the campuses. Yet, parents still needed to be able to reach teachers and administrators. This solution allowed parents to call the main office and still talk to the right person.
As a security measure, we also decided to shut down the front door of our district office, and in its place, we put in a camera phone. We set up specific numbers that camera phone can ring, and then the person can answer the phone, and then press the certain code and unlock the front door, so the people can come in. Then, the door automatically locks behind them.
Updating Notifications and Security
A security incident at one of the area high schools highlighted shortfalls in the school notification systems. For example, at one school, the bell system died, and their internal notification system relied on the PA, which was tied into the failed system. This left no way to communicate with the classrooms efficiently. Someone would have to pick up the phone, dial each extension individually, and go from classroom to classroom to verify that everything was alright.
One of the built-in functions of the Cisco phone system is that you can do paging over the phone. Our team also rolled out Singlewire, which provides a rapid response to any potential security situations or weather emergencies with broad notifications. While this solution was first added to one school, we also took advantage of the pandemic closures to rewire all of the schools.
We also put in electronic locks on every exterior door. You have to have a fob to unlock the door. The lock system also integrated with Singlewire, allowing control of doors remotely. In case of an incident, this allowed administrators at the school to quickly lock down the entire facility. At the same time, we also deployed panic buttons to send notifications and trigger the alerting system.
We now have a very robust two-way integration between our door lock system and our emergency notification system utilizing the Cisco Unified Communications in the middle. I can pick up any phone on campus, dial the emergency code, and it will lock down the doors, broadcast a message on our overhead speakers, our flat panel TVs, and our phones. And it will call the police.
Before installing the system, there was no way to lock down every door remotely. The only way to verify that the lockdown was complete was to physically visit every classroom and door for confirmation. Now, it all happens with the touch of a button or entering a code into a nearby phone.
Keeping Students Safe and Secure
There’s so much technology can do to help schools become safer and more secure. At the Saugus Union School District, we are taking advantage of the Cisco technology to reach that goal so students stay safe, online and offline, and have an efficient, productive learning environment. At the same time, Cisco solutions create an environment that’s significantly easier to manage and control.
It’s put in a level of sanity for me and my team.
Schools look a lot different from when I attended, but it’s not my job to get caught up in the past. My team keeps looking to the future to see how else we might let technology unlock learning.