During the past two years, the Red Clay Consolidated School District in Wilmington, Del., has developed a computer network the size of that in many Fortune 500 companies.

With more than 6,000 computers, 45 servers, 250 laptops, 2,000 printers, and 1,000 large-screen monitors distributed across 27 school buildings and approximately 16,000 students, the task initially was overwhelming.

But by managing the process in “smart” ways, explained Technology Director Patricia Tillotson, Red Clay completed the implementation early and $1.5 million under budget, without compromising quality. District technology employees say much of that success is attributable to some innovative and enthusiastic leadership by Tillotson.

Tillotson earned her Ph.D. in environmental physics and worked for Dow Chemical Co., among other employers, until she decided she “wanted to do something satisfying with [her] life.”

“I had a middle-aged crisis,” laughed Tillotson.

With years of technology experience in the business sector, Tillotson brought “a fresh viewpoint” to Red Clay’s technology services, said Judi Coffield, the district’s instructional technologist.

“There’s a sense of excitement now. She’s a cheerleader for technology, and she always puts the students and learning first,” said Coffield.

Tillotson’s first order of business involved working with KPMG consultants to develop a three-year district technology plan.

According to Coffield, “Some of the goals and objectives were to enhance instructional tools, use technology to improve student learning, provide flexibility in creative teaching methods, enhance achievement, enhance media centers and computer labs, ensure that all classrooms have four computers (one being a teacher media center), increase administrative efficiency, improve communications with parents, and provide technical skills required in today’s business world.”

Every one of those goals has been addressed since Tillotson took over in 1998, district officials say.

According to Tillotson, when she first arrived at Red Clay there was a “rudimentary” technology plan, but the district had just passed a $10.7 million bond issue for technology.

“The first thing I did was get together more than 100 people to do focus groups–coordinated through KPMG–and put together a really comprehensive plan,” she said. Tillotson asked teachers, students, and administrators to participate in the focus groups, and they discussed what they wanted to do with technology.

“That plan basically became my to-do list,” said Tillotson. Red Clay actually completed the three-year technology plan in two years, furnishing schools with brand-new computer labs and classrooms with four computers and a large-screen TV monitor.

The district also purchased a cache of laptop computers for each school, so teachers could check them out and engage in staff training at home.

“We put in the hardware, but we were doing the training in parallel,” said Tillotson. Under the new plan, teachers get instruction on using the software, as well as integrating technology into the curriculum.

Tillotson believes strongly in the “train the trainer”model, incorporating instructional technology teams at each building. These teams put together instructional plans for their buildings, based on past assessment scores.

The same teams also are charged with identifying software to help meet the specific needs of the kids in their schools.

“I really believe, rather than the district telling the schools what they need, the schools ought to have input,” said Tillotson. “So Judi Coffield, the instructional technologist, pulled together a ‘district-recommended’ software list.”

Building-level officials now can choose directly from that list, or they can show district officials why a new program should be added to the list.

“We also put into place a whole software evaluation procedure–we wanted to guarantee an alignment between the software and the outcome,” said Tillotson. “We really wanted to structure the process to ensure curricular alignment.”

Many districts don’t think about creating hardware standards, she said. But standardized hardware can be critical to maintaining total cost of ownership. Red Clay mass-purchased all its new hardware from Dell, selecting only three different models district-wide.

Tillotson is eager to spread the word about Red Clay’s successes and encourage other district to take similar measures to bring their technology programs up to snuff, focusing on student-centered planning, implementation, and evaluation.

She put together a list of recommendations for others who would like to see a similar metamorphosis unfold in their own districts. Her “Five Critical Success Factors for School Technology” are:

  1. Involve everyone in the planning process. Have all stakeholders– students, teachers, administrators, board members, and parents–help develop a clear, multi-year technology plan. Stakeholder vision from the trenches is better than your vision as an administrator or technology director.

  2. Standardize hardware. Select a single vendor for computer purchases, and use the fewest number of vendors possible for purchasing peripherals, to reduce your total support and maintenance costs over the long-term. Do research to select the best and most reliable products.

  3. Develop a customer service attitude. Treat all users with respect, as they deserve excellent service and support. It’s your responsibility to ensure their happiness, and service should be a No. 1 priority. Predict user needs and satisfy them before users know what their needs are. Use remote access technology to fix computer problems as soon as possible.

  4. Teach technology within the context of best instructional practices. Show teachers not only how to point and click through educational software, but also how to manage their classrooms so that technology instruction can occur within the context of existing lesson plans.

  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Communicate 10 times more than you think you need to, and be seen in the school buildings as often as possible. This helps everyone understand that technology is important at all levels of the organization.

Bonus success factor: Stay focused. You will be inundated with technology requests by all personnel in your district. Maintain a direct alignment between your activities and your technology plan. Don’t allow others to sway you from the documented path outlined in No. 1 above.

These strategies have certainly proven themselves at Red Clay, according to technology personnel.

“Patty is great,” said Ted Ammann, network services administrator. “She has a great ability to look at the return on investment that we get from our technology. And the new initiatives all support instruction, rather than technology just for technology’s sake.”

Red Clay Consolidated School District