As the superintendent of the Katy Independent School District in metropolitan Houston, Leonard Merrell knows a thing or two about growing pains.

Reportedly the fastest-growing district in all of Texas, Katy adds an additional 3,000 students every school year.

The growth has come with its share of complications, says Merrell. Three years ago, the district’s technology infrastructure was near collapse. As new students and families continued pouring into the community year after year, district administrators and teachers struggled to keep the network up to speed. They sought to ensure that technology components–from basic classroom computers to complex back-office systems used to manage transportation and food service–were capable of meeting the needs of a growing population.

Not unlike other suburban school districts across the country struggling to cope with the challenges presented by exploding enrollments, Katy ISD began looking for ways to protect its multimillion-dollar technology infrastructure, including thousands of classroom computers and high-powered data servers, from the potentially crippling effects of urban sprawl.

Hoping to add a touch of corporate efficiency to the district’s overmatched IT department, Merrell took an unorthodox approach. Rather than try and grow the network under its current regime, he hired a pair of private-sector executives to overhaul the entire infrastructure.

“We all had an idea of where we wanted technology to go … but needed someone who could translate that vision into a reality,” said Merrell.

The search eventually led the district to Scott Wright, a former executive and technology consultant who had spent the majority of his career working in the oil and gas industries. Merrell invited Wright and members of his independent consulting firm, Xpediant, to the district. Their charge: to stabilize Katy’s overburdened IT infrastructure and improve the quality of its back-end operations.

“When I first came here, Katy really was in kind of a crunch [from] systems just not performing like they should,” said Wright, who–despite being paid as an independent contractor–was given the title of executive director of technology for the district. Katy “was having problems keeping the infrastructure going,” he said.

Three years and several sweeping reforms later, Wright says Katy’s once-maligned infrastructure now adequately services some 48,000 students and 4,000 full- and part-time instructors–all with an approval rating that reportedly tops 90 percent of school district employees.

In an interview with eSchool News, the pioneers behind the district’s high-tech turnaround talked about what it took to transform Katy from a limited technology district into a massive, enterprise-level infrastructure.

This is their story.

Culture shock

Before he arrived in Katy, Wright said, the district’s IT department was in disarray, organized under a hierarchy that made it difficult to discern between the educators who specialized in leveraging technology in the classroom and the professional technologists whose primary job was to maintain the network and ensure the systems were up and running.

The end result was that educators in the IT department were trying to perform duties for which they were not properly trained–functions Wright says should have been left to the discretion of professional technologists.

It was a problem without an easy fix, and Wright and his colleague, Lenny Schad, the district’s deputy superintendent of information and technology services, realized it full well.

Their plan was to separate the district’s existing IT department into two divisions: one for professional technologists whose job would be to upgrade and maintain the systems infrastructure, and another for curriculum specialists who would concentrate on leveraging technology in the classroom.

Because neither Wright nor Schad had any previous education experience, Wright didn’t want the work they were doing in IT to interfere with the work of the curriculum department. To ensure that IT technicians were under separate management, the group decided to move the district’s educational technologists out of the IT department and under the umbrella of curriculum and instruction.

“Our goal was to create a sort of service organization within the larger district,” explained Wright. Within this organization, IT administrators would work independently from educators and ed-tech professionals to build out the network on the back end, making structural modifications to improve capacity and bolster overall functionality.

During the transition, they also added the position of deputy superintendent for information and technology services–a change that gave Schad a direct line to the superintendent’s office.

By creating a cabinet-level position for the district’s top IT administrator, Schad said, Katy was able to eliminate much of the red tape that previously had been a roadblock to back-end technology improvements.

“One of the smartest things that Katy [leaders] did when they started this transition was they went out and got somebody at the CIO level from business and put [this person] at the cabinet level,” he explained. “We needed to be able to hear what they were saying in order to help them.”

Internal shake-ups

As with any major organizational shake-up, district administrators acknowledge it was rough going–at least at first.

“It was difficult the first year, because there was no educational technology department,” said Loreen Bailey, the district’s instructional officer for educational technology.

Bailey is now head of a five-person unit composed of four ed-tech specialists and a department secretary whose job it is to help ensure that technology is integrated effectively in classrooms throughout the district. The department, which is overseen by the office of curriculum and instruction, was established following the initial overhaul to use the skills of educators with technology expertise. The department is complemented by a staff of instructional technology facilitators (ITFs) who provide on-site support at each of the district’s 44 school buildings.

Thanks to the ITFs and a new technology help desk, which can be accessed directly by any teacher in any classroom through the use of a district-wide IP telephone system, educators can better focus their efforts on improving the academic standing of students, Bailey says.

“When you don’t have to be the fix-it person, you can really focus on delivering instruction in the classroom,” she said.

Though she was skeptical of the changes at first, Bailey says much of what the educational technology department has been able to accomplish in the last three years is a direct result of upgrades to the district’s technology infrastructure.

“It was a positive change,” she said. Though the two departments–IT and educational technology–now operate under different organizational umbrellas, she says, administrators from the two departments continue to meet on a monthly basis to ensure that any changes to the infrastructure are being made in the best interests of students and teachers.

Despite a mostly positive reaction from employees and students, response from the larger community has been decidedly mixed.

When a recent $261.5 bond issue for new school construction, renovation, and infrastructure upgrades–including additions to the district’s eMail and telephone services–was defeated by voters earlier this month, a sticking point for some opponents of the measure was the hiring of Wright.

Critics of the deal alleged that the district, which paid Wright and his firm more than $13 million over a four-year period, had overpaid for his services. Led by a local newspaper publisher and a citizen’s group that calls itself the Katy Citizens Watchdogs, these critics also noted that Wright’s firm, Xpediant, was delinquent on its taxes and had been prohibited from doing business in Texas for a period of time until those bills were paid.

Wright claims the tax issue was the result of a miscommunication with the state comptroller’s office and stemmed from a state franchise tax in 2001. He said the issues surrounding his company’s tax status have since been resolved.

Though Wright was given an official position within the district, Merrell said, on paper he remained a consultant–and he continues to be paid as such.

Before signing on with Wright and his firm, Merrell said, the district ran the proposal by its financial experts and an independent auditor. According to Merrell, all agreed the deal was above board and made sense for the district. He said the school board will receive the results of an independent review of the transition in June, at which time he believes district officials will be vindicated.

Meanwhile, the transition continues.

Though Katy’s current IT department is not much larger than it was when the initial transition began three years ago, Wright says the names and faces of the people behind the network have changed dramatically.

“We retooled the entire organization and brought in the right people,” he said.

Under the new infrastructure, there is both an executive director for technology operations and an executive director for enterprise applications.

“In some areas, I think we just needed different skill sets,” he said. In some cases, those skill sets weren’t easy to find.

In an era when IT professionals in the business world often command six-figure incomes, Wright said, the district’s antiquated pay structure made it nearly impossible to attract high-quality talent.

To lure a more attractive pool of candidates, Wright worked with the school board to restructure the district’s pay scale, freeing up more money to pay highly qualified IT technicians and other back-end staff.

Though the district was able to offer fringe benefits such as more flexible work schedules and additional days off, he said, the only way to attract top-tier technology talent was to improve the pay scale. “You can’t pay someone $40,000 a year to run a network worth $9 million,” he said. “We’ve changed that.”

Fending off critics

Despite the unwavering support of Merrell and other district leaders, Wright and Schad anticipated their new roles would generate tension within the district, especially at the school level, where some educators questioned their lack of school experience.

After all, the changes they sought to implement were dramatic.

Not only did Wright and his team state the case for a multi-year, multimillion-dollar investment in technology; they also convinced board members and other stakeholders to adjust existing pay scales so as to attract more highly skilled employees, implemented in-service training programs, and completely changed the look and feel of the district’s IT department.

Having operated for so many years under a system where technology infrastructure took a back seat to curriculum and instruction, he said, it was sometimes difficult to convince certain staff members that the decisions the new IT crew was making were in the school system’s best interests.

“We knew that the change was going to be painful, and we prepped the board for the fact that it was going to be painful,” Schad explained, adding, “I think most school districts’ knee-jerk reaction is, Well, if it causes people to yell and scream, we don’t want to do it.'”

To fend off these criticisms, the team took a proactive approach to promoting its technology plan. Rather than simply forcing changes upon district stakeholders, they set out to explain the reasons behind each and every move, making frequent presentations to board members and holding informational and planning sessions so administrators could get a feel for what to expect.

“We had to spend a lot of time going through lots of discussions with the school board and with the superintendent about what our path forward was going to be,” explained Schad.

Getting the school board members and other stakeholders to support the effort was huge, said Merrell: “Without the support of some of these people, the changes would never have seen the light of day.”

Innovations and improvements

As the defeat of their recent bond issue proves, district officials still have work to do in building stakeholder support for their IT initiatives. But, Merrell claims, the changes they have made so far have been well worth the struggle.

In the first year of the transition, the team moved to centralize and standardize a whole host of technology components. They redesigned the district’s infrastructure, built new applications, crafted district-wide technology standards, and locked down more than 18,000 desktops in favor of central management.

“One of the first things we did was to lock down the desktop in terms of hardware and software,” explained Schad. “No matter what campus you’re on, every computer in the third grade looks exactly the same.”

“Although the transition was difficult at first … we are now reaping the benefits,” said Michelle Vaughn, an education technology specialist with the district. “Once you accept the need for standardization, you really can come to see the value … There really is no other way to do it.”

Among the team’s first major development projects was a district-wide curriculum management tool called KMAC, or Katy Management of Automated Curriculum.

The fully online application, accessible from any computer within the school district, enables teachers and administrators to share detailed lesson plans and other educational resources district-wide. The tool also lets administrators monitor computer-use by individual teachers and is currently being upgraded to provide a means to tie student test scores to teacher performance, developers said.

Today, KMAC reportedly is used by 99 percent of teachers across the district to develop weekly lesson plans, integrate multimedia resources, and collaborate with colleagues and outside educational experts. Available 24 hours a day, Wright says, KMAC currently houses more than 1.8 million lesson plans and 468 curriculum guides aligned with federal and state standards for all disciplines.

“KMAC helps new teachers come up to speed,” said Wright in a report about the application. “And it also keeps all of our teachers on the same page when it comes to teaching standards-based curriculum.”

Wright and his team also have begun looking at new ways to collect and report student data using KMAC.

“Early on, we transferred student management and student gradebook reporting from the campus to the district level,” said Schad. “Once we did that, administrators began to see the power of the data and of reports that could be quickly and efficiently generated.”

The group also has begun expanding its capabilities by entering into partnerships with a series of nationally recognized technology vendors. To improve network efficiency, the district began migrating to servers and routers powered by Cisco Systems Inc. Another technology partner, CDW Government Inc. (CDW-G), collaborates with the IT and curriculum departments by helping to manage procurement and licensing of all new hardware and software devices, freeing district IT staff from the hassle of dealing with multiple vendors, agreements, and contracts.

Wright says the new infrastructure has enabled district IT staff and educators to make more efficient use of their time. For technicians, that means more hours devoted to maintaining and upgrading the network. And for educators, he said, it translates into more time where it counts most–in the classroom.

“Once everything was stabilized, instructors could really begin to focus on integrating technology into the curriculum,” Bailey said.

Links:

Katy Independent School District
http://www.katyisd.org

Cisco Systems Inc.
http://www.cisco.com

CDW-G
http://www.cdwg.com