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Showcasing Jon Renner and "OutlawNet"

"Our school is located in the High Desert country of central Oregon; we are a long way from the rest of the world in many ways," says Jon Renner. "As a social studies teacher, I recognized the need to improve my students' understanding of the larger society in which they live, and I saw the Internet as a way to do that."

Renner, who started out with three outside telephone lines and long distance connection, quickly realized that, although the technology was "pretty cool," it was too expensive for little Sisters High School. Without the benefit of state and federal programs to support the technology, Renner decided that if the school was going to have it, he would have to find a unique means of funding -- OutlawNet!

"As a guy who made his living in the high tech world before returning to teaching, I knew what it was going to take to make that happen," Renner told Education World. "I developed a business plan in which I described a firm that would provide the entire school district with free Internet access and network services if the district would agree to lease the business on-site office space at commercial rates. That was important, because I also wanted students to be directly involved in the business, and that could be accomplished best if the operation was located on campus."

The business plan included a detailed cash flow analysis, equipment and personnel requirements, timelines, and a proposed contract with the school district that detailed the relationship between the district and the new firm. Renner found a "funding angel" who provided a loan to get the business off the ground, and he recruited employees among students in the school's math and science classes.

"The students were really surprised when they discovered that starting up a new service business involved lots of telephone work," Renner stated. "They made many cold calls in our community, discussing the Internet and why people should have it in their homes, and explaining how our little firm could make that happen. Other students designed and produced business forms; many others competed in a contest to design our logo."

School superintendent Dennis Dempsey helps students unload a delivery of computers provided by StRUT.

Students also were tasked with installation duties, and those who were primarily interested in the technical aspects of the business learned how to diagnose and repair computer problems of all kinds. Renner and the students worked with StRUT (Students Recycling Used Technology) to gain valuable hands-on experience refurbishing previously used computers. Through Intel's Challenge 10000 program, the students assembled, tested, and delivered hundreds of new computers to schools throughout central Oregon.

"Today, as our market has become more sophisticated, most new customers do not need as much student support," reported Renner. "Instead, most students spend their time learning advanced skills, such as Web site development and management; graphic arts; and general science, including the chemistry and physics involved in the semiconductor industry. Students also spend time maintaining our extensive district network. A few students also have work-study positions in OutlawNet's office, working directly with staff and customers."

At the high school, OutlawNet is offered as a regular course that students can take for as many as four years. In it, emphasis is placed on a "team" philosophy.

"The team concept stems directly from my experience in industry; in class, students are given learning tasks they must work as a group to complete," Renner explained. "Gradually, freshmen learn from more experienced students the skills directly needed to solve problems, and both experienced and less experienced students learn skills necessary in the real world of work."

OutlawNet provides free Internet access to all students, teachers, and administrators in the district and hosts hundreds of school-produced Web sites dedicated to everything from a fourth grade class's snowman to advanced art at the high school. Initially, Internet services were not available to the Sisters community, but now that other service providers have joined it, OutlawNet has added new services and formed partnerships. The business currently offers satellite and DSL broadband through other firms, and OutlawNet sells and services all types of computers and technical equipment.

"Our attractive rates and personal service continue to make this part of our business a solid profit center," Renner added. "We are working with a number of other firms to explore wide area wireless solutions in our area and we expect that service to expand markedly during the next several years. Other broadband solutions also are interesting, and the new mobile T systems are very attractive to our customer base. The largest growth area in our business, however, is probably service; it seems that providing affordable, responsive personnel will consume the largest part of our effort during the next several years. We will do what we can to train and inspire kids to work in this field."

Photo courtesy of Jon Renner.

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Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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