Stellar tech use

In the vanguard of education, the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) in metropolitan Washington, D.C., are committed to expanding the frontiers of learning with their stellar use of technology.

Consider the live, televised conversation with orbiting astronauts that FCPS students experienced not long ago. For Fairfax County students, this kind of educational experience is not all that unusual. And that’s a key reason the school system has been called the “best in the nation” by at least one researcher.

For the students at FCPS’ Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, last Nov. 15 was more than just a routine day at school. With the aid of a live satellite downlink, Thomas Jefferson students had the chance to interview two crew members from International Space Station Expedition 12 as it orbited Earth.

Arranged in honor of International Education Week, the live teleconference was broadcast on NASA-TV and on the FCPS network to all its students. Other school systems from around the country were able to access the program via satellite.

The students asked Expedition 12 Commander Bill McArthur and Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev questions ranging from future sources of energy in space (McArthur said nuclear power holds a lot of promise) to the greatest threats of living in space. Other queries focused on the two astronauts’ backgrounds, education, microgravity experiments, and diet.

Their images broadcast on a large projection screen during the live event, the two crew members bobbed up and down in the weightless vacuum of the Space Station as they answered the students’ questions.

Several students asked Flight Engineer Tokarev questions in Russian. At one point, students laughed as an object resembling a Sharpie pen floated in front of the camera.

“We really are all in this together, and the opportunity to push the frontier is tremendous,” McArthur said.

With 228 schools, 163,500 students, and nearly 22,000 employees, FCPS is the 12th-largest school system in the nation. It has a $1.9 billion annual budget, more than $120 million of which is spent on technology. In November, voters passed a $246 million bond issue for school construction and additional technology upgrades.

All teachers and students have access to an enterprise-wide eMail system that reportedly processes more than 12 million messages each month. There are 87,000 workstations and 800 servers in the district, which boasts a student-to-computer ratio of 3 to 1. All classrooms have internet access, and all schools also have some form of wireless connectivity, with nearly 7,000 wireless access points deployed throughout the district.

This world-class IT infrastructure is making possible all kinds of technological innovations in delivering instruction to students, bringing information to parents and other community members, and streamlining school administrative functions.

In fact, in recognition of its top-flight use of technology to improve all areas of operation, FCPS has received CIO Magazine’s prestigious CIO 100 award, which recognizes organizations around the world that excel in business performance through resourceful IT management and practices. FCPS joins the likes of Dell, FedEx Corp., and JPMorgan Chase as past award winners.

Some of the district’s many tech innovations include:

  • 24-7 Learning, an online resource (hosted by Blackboard Inc.) that lets students, teachers, and parents access homework and class assignments, view calendars, explore links to enrichment activities, take online classes, and more–all through any internet-connected computer (see story, page 18). Through the 24-7 Learning portal, teachers also have access to a formative assessment system from The Princeton Review to help gauge where students are in relation to the curriculum, so they can adjust their instruction accordingly.

  • The Education Decision Support Library, a comprehensive repository of information that FCPS educators can use to make more informed decisions about instruction. Developed by engineers in the district’s IT department, this patented, home-grown system won a coveted 2006 Enterprise Value Award from CIO Magazine in March. It has proven so successful that FCPS now licenses the technology to school districts across the country to help them comply with the federally mandated No Child Left Behind Act (see story, page 13).

  • An online library catalog from Sirsi Corp., called iBistro, that links together the collections from all 240 school libraries through a single web interface. Users can search for instructional resources–including books, DVDs, and more–by keyword, school, subject, title, or author. They can check on the status of each copy of a resource and can search for “more like this” or “more by this author” to find appropriate resources for their classes.

  • An emergency notification system called Keep in Touch, which was featured in an article in the January 2004 issue of eSchool News (see Parents and other stakeholders can sign up for the service on the district’s web site by providing their eMail address, cell-phone number, and so on. Parents also may specify the kinds of information they’d like to receive, such as emergency notices, class activities, and school bulletins. Besides individual preferences, district officials can segment the database by school or region, allowing them to target their messages more effectively.

Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is a magnet school that is nationally recognized for its outstanding student achievement. The district also was featured in a recent Consortium for School Networking case study of its total cost of ownership for technology, and it has partnered with neighboring organization Cable in the Classroom to provide staff development in using the internet for instruction. In addition, its Fairfax Network broadcasts original multimedia content via satellite technology to more than 25,000 schools worldwide (see story, page 20).

FCPS’s use of a comprehensive data management system to track student progress and its emphasis on staff development are among the many reasons University of Virginia education professor Daniel Duke called the district the “best in the nation” in his 2005 book Education Empire: The Evolution of an Excellent Suburban School System.

“By dramatically increasing access to rigorous academic programs for minority students, targeting additional resources for schools with high numbers of at-risk students, and developing a comprehensive data management system to track student progress and guide timely interventions, Fairfax has done as much as any school system–public, private, or parochial–to ensure that all students receive a first-rate education,” Duke writes.

He adds: “Even more remarkable, in some ways, is the fact that Fairfax has achieved all this for less money per student than many school systems.” Credit technology for adding to the district’s overall efficiency, too.

So what is Fairfax County’s secret? Vision, discipline, a structure that allows for careful and well-planned investments in technology, and an unwavering focus on the needs of its stakeholders are all part of the district’s formula for success. To find out more, read on.

Information ‘anytime, anywhere’

The overarching vision for the district’s use of technology can be summed up by a phrase that often gets overused in K-12 education today–but applies with precise accuracy in Fairfax County’s case: “anytime, anywhere” access to information.

“Our overall idea is anytime, anywhere learning: having all of [our resources] available to our kids wherever they are–at home, at school, or even at the beach,” said Maribeth Luftglass, assistant superintendent and chief information officer for Fairfax County schools. “The ability to be part of the educational experience from wherever you are–we’re providing that.”

The district’s wireless infrastructure is one key factor that makes this vision possible, Luftglass said. All teachers have laptop computers, and wireless connectivity allows them to move from room to room while still having network access–which aids in teacher planning and training efforts. In addition, mobile computer labs are available in county schools for student instruction.

Making information available online is another means of realizing this vision. Perhaps the best example is the district’s 24-7 Learning portal, which boasts 189,000 unique users. Besides keeping parents dialed into what their children are doing at school, the portal also provides supplemental content and enrichment activities to enhance student instruction. At last count, there were more than 18,000 active class web sites on the portal.

Students also can take online classes through the 24-7 Learning system. Last year, 33 virtual courses reportedly served more than 1,000 hospitalized, incarcerated, homebound, or home-schooled students. The district has set up a computer lab at Fairfax Hospital and another at the county Juvenile Detention Center, so “these kids can still be part of the school system while they work on becoming productive citizens,” Luftglass said.

But the district’s philosophy of easy access to information doesn’t just apply to instruction. Fairfax County is a leader in using technology to streamline communication between schools and their stakeholders. The district reaches out to alumni through an online directory, for example, and former students can request copies of transcripts online. The FCPS web site uses streaming video to communicate information to parents about adult-education opportunities, and the district’s half-hour biweekly cable news program now streams video news clips to stakeholders via the web.

What’s more, with the help of a $630,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, FCPS has developed a secure web portal through which parents can enter the emergency-care information for their children. The portal accepts electronic signatures, so parents don’t have to fill out and sign new forms each year. Instead, they can go online and supply or change this information as needed, simplifying the process for all involved.

Getting accurate information was the impetus for the project. “For the most part, parents don’t update this information beyond once a year, and of course people’s cell-phone numbers and addresses change all the time,” said Ted Davis, director of enterprise information systems for Fairfax County schools. “It’s very frustrating for our schools when there is a safety or security emergency, and they’re trying to contact parents–and none of the phone numbers are working.”

Using a software program called Mobile Guardian, from Defywire Inc., FCPS is delivering this emergency-care information directly into the hands of school officials and emergency first responders–wherever they might be on campus.

Mobile Guardian allows teachers, administrators, and security personnel to access the district’s student information system (SIS) from a wireless-enabled handheld device, such as a personal digital assistant (PDA). Using the software, school officials no longer must find a desktop computer and look up a student’s medical information before being able to make an informed decision about the care she or he might need in an emergency situation. Instead, they can tap into this information instantly from wherever they are.

FCPS is supplying PDAs to principals, school resource officers, security personnel, and other emergency first responders in its schools, Davis said. Besides boosting the district’s safety initiatives, the Defywire solution also helps administrators maintain discipline and keep other student records up to date. School leaders no longer have to return to their desks to fill out certain reports, for instance–this now can be handled from the palm of their hand.

“If students are found where they’re not supposed to be, or if they are involved in an altercation, the staff members responding to those situations now have immediate access to those students’ records to help address the situation,” Davis said.

To protect the privacy of this information, none of it is stored on the PDA itself, Davis said–it is all transmitted dynamically from the SIS server. All communications are encrypted, and users receive varying levels of access to the information, based on their roles.

The goal is to make information available to people “whenever and wherever they need it the most,” Davis said–whether they’re at home, roaming the school hallways, outside on the soccer field, or even away on a field trip.

Easy access to information is one key benefit of these initiatives; greater efficiency is another. The emergency-care information that parents submit to the district electronically, for example, is imported into the district’s SIS automatically, saving valuable staff time.

“In the past, staff were keying this information in manually,” Davis said. “We spent at least two months trying to capture this information before. Of course, there are a lot of things going on at the beginning of the school year–and this was an added burden.”

The district uses a solution from Fairfax, Va.-based business integration software company webMethods Inc. to integrate its SIS and other data applications, ensuring that data can flow freely and in real time from one application to another.

These efforts are not only streamlining school operations; they’re also facilitating the recovery of costs.

For instance, FCPS is using SchoolDude’s FSDirect software to manage its facility scheduling processes for all middle and high schools and for about 30 of its 136 elementary schools. The district’s goal is to let stakeholders apply on line when they wish to use school facilities; SchoolDude reportedly is developing an interface that will provide this functionality in the near future.

FCPS collects about $1 million in rental fees per year by allowing community groups to use its school facilities. Determining accurate costs for facility use and recovering these costs have been great benefits of using FSDirect, district officials say.

Already, district employees can submit their facility-use requests online and receive eMail notification as their requests move through the approval process. This has helped the district improve communication and cut down on response time for requests. Once the public has the ability to use FSDirect, the turnaround time for community requests will decrease ten-fold, officials say.

In short, “connectivity between the home, school, and central office–and everyone having equal access to information–is the foundation for endless achievement,” Luftglass said. “You can do so many things when you have that connectivity, that integration, that interaction.”

Keys to success

Of course, none of this would be possible without an extensive, well-supported IT infrastructure in place.

FCPS’s robust wide-area network, built in conjunction with Verizon Inc., reportedly is the largest in northern Virginia and uses three backup generators to keep things running without interruption. And the district’s tech-support services rival those of any Fortune 500 company.

Fairfax County employs two separate divisions for support: an IT Operations group to handle the equipment, or field-service, side, and an IT Support Services group to handle the customer-service side.

On the Operations front, nearly 150 technicians maintain 87,000 computers and more than 25,000 printers, as well as AV systems, security systems, and all other technology systems and devices. The district’s Network Operations Center is monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week … 365 days a year.

On the Support Services front, more than 200 people handle customer service. The Technology Support Service Center last year resolved more than 50,000 incidents, providing 122,000 hours of direct tech support and 13,000 hours of phone support.

In addition, the district is close to its goal of having two support personnel at each school to offer tech support and teacher training in the use of technology to enhance instruction. All schools now have at least one technology specialist and at least one part-time tech support person on staff. The high schools all have a full-time tech support person on staff.

Support from the community also is key; it helps that the community is on board with technology. The latest example of this came in November, when stakeholders passed a $246 million bond issue for new construction and facility upgrades, including infrastructural upgrades to help support new technology.

About $15 million of this bond issue will help pay for new server rooms, racks, and long-term infrastructural needs, as well as electrical upgrades and air conditioning to support additional technology use. The rest will pay for new school construction and renovation. The district has ed-tech specifications in place for each newly constructed or renovated building, and the schools can use some of this money to help meet these specifications–by purchasing interactive whiteboards, for instance, or mobile computer labs.

The $246 million bond issue is only the latest in a string of bond issues the district has passed, thanks to continued support from the community. But this support has been earned largely through the district’s careful technology planning–yet another key to its success.

FCPS takes a careful, businesslike approach to technology planning and implementation, said Nitin Pradhan, chief IT architect and director of technology planning and assessment for the district. Pradhan’s 24-person team identifies, evaluates, and assesses new and emerging technologies within the district’s Tech Labs to determine their relevance to FCPS. His staff makes about 150 technical assessments each year to determine what works–and what doesn’t.

The district’s process for issuing requests for proposals (RFPs) also is bulletproof. “We have a very structured process,” Luftglass explained. District officials first conduct a market survey to find out what companies and solutions are out there that match what they are looking for; then, they bring in outside consultants to help them write an RFP.

Proposals undergo separate reviews for their technical soundness and cost-effectiveness. They are evaluated by committees with representation from the district’s procurement office, central office, IT staff, school personnel, and end-users. “We try to include somebody on the network side, somebody on the data side, and somebody on the assessment side, so we have a large representation,” Luftglass said. Then, the district invites selected vendors for a series of demonstrations to test their products’ performance and functionality.

“Once [vendors] go through this process, they have no way of challenging–it’s such a well-documented, very structured process,” Luftglass said. “It’s a lot of work, but in the end you have a product that you can stand behind, that you know you’ll have for the long haul.”

Such remarkable IT infrastructure and support services don’t come cheaply–but to help offset these costs, the district creatively leverages its resources. For instance, it has teamed up with local organizations, such as Cable in the Classroom and the Smithsonian Institution, to deliver instructional content and professional development services at a reduced cost. The district also is one of the first K-12 school systems in the nation to license and sell its own self-created technology, the Education Decision Support Library, and though it doesn’t aim to turn a profit, the income this has generated has helped defray the cost of developing the system.

Creative financing aside, the challenges Fairfax County faces are significant. One of the biggest is refreshing its vast array of technology resources at regular intervals; the district reportedly spends $26 million per year on equipment refreshes alone.

“We have such a huge investment in technology–routers, servers–and all of that continually needs to be refreshed. It’s a lot more fun and exciting for the school board to invest in a new mobile lab for a school, which you can see, as opposed to a router that you just have to replace,” Luftglass said.

Another challenge is moving from an eight-to-five to a round-the-clock tech-support structure, which has become increasingly important as the district has adopted a model of 24-7 instruction.

“If the eMail system goes down, if anything goes down, [users] expect instantaneous support,” Luftglass said. Teachers are using the 24-7 Learning system at home, she explained, and they are calling or eMailing the district’s tech-support staff if there is a problem. For now, Luftglass said, support staff members generally take care of these requests “out of the goodness of their hearts, with BlackBerries and pagers”–but the district’s long-term goal is to formalize this process, especially as it adds more parents to its network.

Despite such challenges, what drives FCPS on to further success is the constant desire to improve, primarily by focusing on the needs of its “clients.”

For instance, Pradhan has created a unique position in his department: the “instructional architect,” who works with the instructional development staff to match the district’s instructional goals to the expertise and resources of the IT department. One outgrowth of this close relationship between IT and instruction: a Teacher Materials Preparation Center, which serves as an in-house production studio for educators to create their own classroom materials (see story, page 23).

“We want to become the model for effective and efficient, client-centered products and services, so that we are the premier information technology services provider for education,” Luftglass said.

Managing Editor Dennis Pierce, Senior Editor Corey Murray, Assistant Editor Robert Brumfield, and Assistant Editor Laura Ascione contributed to this report.


Fairfax County Public Schools

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