Virginia’s Chris Sieger strives to make Alexandria great

In 1995, the Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia launched a bold technology initiative to ensure that its students would have the skills needed for the 21st century. In keeping with Virginia’s new statewide school technology initiative, every public school classroom in Alexandria needed to be connected to the internet.

But Chris Sieger, the school district’s director of information technology services, viewed internet access as just one element in an integrated system.

“The [state] established minimum technology standards,” Sieger said. “We expanded that directive by creating a technology plan for our school district that addressed administrative routines and teacher training, in addition to computers in the classroom. We wanted to make our students, teachers, and support staff more productive.”

The scope of the district’s initiative is extensive. In the classrooms, students and teachers will use dual-platform computers, graphing calculators, and digital video cameras for distance learning and TV production. Every classroom is equipped with telephones and voice mail to connect teachers and students to parents and the community. School libraries have been automated to provide students with CD-ROM and worldwide research capabilities.

In 1993, prior to the district’s technology initiative, many classrooms had no computers and there were no internet connections. Today, the school system has one of the best-equipped networks in the nation. Alexandria schools have more than 5,000 available ports and are capable of supporting thousands more. Every classroom has computers and internet access.

Implementing the plan

Sieger sought help in implementing his initiative from a systems reseller with expertise in internet and enterprise network management technology. Software Productivity Strategists Inc., of Rockville, Md., recommended Hewlett-Packard’s enterprise network management and internet management software applications, combined with eMail and calendar scheduling applications from Netscape Communications Corp.

Each school is wired with fiber optics that tie into local and wide area networks. An ATM network backbone supports voice, video, and data communications. At the district office, HP’s flexible servers power the school system’s varied applications. A separate server houses some of the district’s financial systems, as well as legacy applications that are still in transition, and servers at each school building run file and print functions and a distributed student information application.

“When you combine HP’s competitive server pricing with its top reliability (the company) is unbeatable,” Sieger said.

He added that, due to its scope, the district’s technology initiative is being implemented over five years and is still a work-in-progress.

Initially, the reseller set up the hardware, installed the software, and conducted introductory tutorials so the Alexandria school staff could use the system and get a feel for its capabilities. Then the company worked with the school system to identify and prioritize the district’s requirements and determine how to configure the applications to meet those objectives.

During the first phase of implementation, Alexandria transitioned to its new eMail and calendar scheduling systems. The school board was the first entity to use it. Eventually, the entire school system will use this software.

At the next stage, implementation of the wide area network and student information software allowed teachers to enter lesson plans so that all district teachers could leverage one another’s work. Attendance is being taken online via the network to reduce administrative overhead.

“In the coming months, we will facilitate teachers’ individual student focus by providing them with online intranet access to the appropriate curriculum level for a specific student, based on data from the student’s information file,” Sieger said.

“Teachers will also have immediate access to test data banks and learning resources, which will allow them to customize lesson plans for optimal learning,” he said. “The intranet also will become the vehicle for many staff development programs.”

Setting the pace

The impact of the district’s technology initiative is already being felt. Today, teachers use their laptop computers for eMail, research, and demonstrations via large screen TV monitors. The Alexandria school system provides at least one resource teacher in every school for one-on-one mentoring.

Students and teachers, meanwhile, are becoming adept at computer technology and applications. Keyboarding, once a high school subject, is now mastered by many students in elementary grades. Workshops also provide parents with computer training, so they can work with their children at home.

The scope and size of the district’s initiative has attracted national recognition. Staff and students have made presentations before the Virginia State School Board Association’s annual conference, the state’s Educational Media Association, and the Virginia Society for Technology in Education.

Employers, meanwhile, are beginning to recognize Alexandria—a city of 120,000 people just south of Washington D.C.—as an ideal place to locate or relocate their businesses, because of the school system’s cutting-edge technology.

“Children who entered kindergarten in the first year of the technology initiative will graduate from high school in 2008, fully ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” Sieger said. “Our school system is at the forefront of our state’s educational technology, and we are proud to set the pace for technology in education.”

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