Both outside and inside the K-12 industry, most people think of schools in relation to their own communities and experiences. These experiences have evolved over the past several decades from classrooms, teachers, blackboards and football games to now include laptops, iPads, blended learning, online testing, smart phones, and interactive boards.
A closer look (with a broader view), however, shows a very different picture. Aside from the students, teachers, parents and guardians, administrators, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, nurses, and other people it takes to run a school, there are school buildings with cooling and heating systems; grass and landscape to be maintained; gymnasiums and athletic facilities to be built, maintained, monitored and secured; million-dollar payrolls; state, local, and federal taxes and regulations; health, dental, and vision insurance plans; retirement funds and other accounts to be maintained; buildings to be cleaned; tens of thousands of meals to prepare and serve; and tens of thousands of miles driven by transportation buses. The fact that schools such as those in Atlanta Public Schools (APS), are located in the heart of an urban area of more than 5 million people adds further complexities that make support and services even more challenging.
In other words, schools are really large, modern, complex businesses and important cornerstones of every community. While our primary customers are children, their families, and their communities, it is very critical that school districts be well-run, efficient businesses that can achieve the core objective of providing great instruction to every child.
On the technology side, the school business today, relies heavily on modern technology to deliver critical services efficiently and effectively. Teachers need computers, document cameras, interactive LED panels, projectors and other technology to instruct; transportation departments need GPS devices, software and other technology to route and track buses; security departments need cameras, and badge access technology to protect students, staff, visitors and property. Virtually every business function in schools today is automated (e.g., attendance, enrollment, scheduling, testing, ERP systems, curriculum platforms, and remedial programs.) All of these platforms and technologies rely on a robust, backbone infrastructure.
"Our recently released three-year technology plan outlines our strategic focus on improving technological efficiencies and effectiveness, as well as developing the capabilities necessary to meet the needs of a 21st century school system"
Over the past year and a half, APS has embarked on a systematic approach to provide technology support to our students and schools in the following areas:
(a) Improving the technology infrastructure,
(b) Increasing access to technology in schools,
(c) Increasing direct support to schools,
(d) Increasing the ability to deliver services faster, cheaper and better.
Improving the technology infrastructure
Our approach is simple but not easy – “ensure that APS has a stable, fast and reliable infrastructure to meet the demands of the 21st century.” Through the use of Special Revenue (SPLOST) funds, we have assessed and upgraded the cabling to all classrooms, labs, media centers and other areas to Cat-6 which supports the ability for increased bandwidth; upgraded our entire network from Cisco to HP switching, including upgrading the main core switches to support 10G bandwidth and establishing a redundant disaster recovery site; redesigned our wireless network to support both coverage and capacity district-wide; and began a process to add an access point to every classroom. Finally, using bandwidth utilization data, we increased both our primary and redundant Internet bandwidth capacities, and significantly upgraded the bandwidth WAN connection to all our schools (x10) where the utilization was at or above 40 percent.
Increasing access to technology
To allow us to better support our student computing environment, we built a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) using Citrix technology on a Hyper-V platform. We replaced most of our stand-alone student desktops with approximately 22,000 WYSE client virtual desktops. This allows us to better manage the student computing environment and significantly increase our ability to deploy updates and new software quickly. It also enhances our ability to manage the technology requirements from standardized testing required of our students. To also directly support instruction, we are now deploying 70” LED panels to our classrooms and media centers to replace the old interactive boards. This move not only enhances the abilities of the teachers and students, but it also eliminates the need for projectors and all associated support costs (bulb replacements, calibration and support, etc.).
Increasing direct support to schools
Looking at the support model from prior school years, we made a case to the Atlanta Board of Education to approve an increase in our technology support budget. We were able to target most of our high schools and primary schools with enrollment over 900 students to have a dedicated field support technician. Using the same enrollment data, the remaining schools were assigned based on a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio. For the 2015-16 school year, we are looking at further enhancing the support by making all schools in a 2:1 maximum ratio. To make the support more effective and impactful, we engaged the services of tech writers to help with documenting all critical processes and procedures to ensure that we can consistently deliver services to our schools and measure the quality of delivery by our field support technicians.
Increasing the ability to deliver services
To accomplish this, we looked at multiple areas. First, the Atlanta Board of Education approved a multi-year project to upgrade our ERP system (Lawson) from a locally hosted platform to the cloud. Upon completion of that project, our applicant tracking, on-boarding, employee self-service, substitute teaching, document imaging, talent management, payroll and financials will be fully integrated. Secondly, we looked at several independent operational systems for asset tracking and management, incident tracking, work-order tracking, and change management. Working with the APS Operations Division, we examined many solutions available in the market and settled on a suite of IBM products, IBM Smart Cloud Control Desk, IBM Tririga, and IBM Maximo, which are fully integrated and allow us to move away from our isolated systems. In July 2015, we began the Smart Cloud, End- Point and TADDM implementations. These will allow our technology team to offer our staff and students IT self-service, automatically detect assets on the network, detect relationships between network assets, quickly deploy software and patches over the network, track software usage on client devices, and automate the delivery of identified services and requests as well.
The instructional and logistics services that the four technology areas above are designed to support requires that school districts have many complex decisions to make. Our recently released three-year technology plan outlines our strategic focus on improving technological efficiencies and effectiveness, as well as developing the capabilities necessary to meet the needs of a 21st century school system. These decisions cannot be made by one person or the CIO. In APS, we are extremely fortunate to benefit from partnerships with Fortune 500 companies, world-class colleges and universities, many smaller locally-owned businesses, community leaders, and partnerships with colleagues and friends from nearby school systems.