On an unseasonably warm morning not so long ago, a young, dark-haired boy darts through the double doors of Chicago’s South Loop Elementary School. “Can you call my dad? I left my lunch money on the seat of the car!” he calls to a woman seated at a desk just inside the doors. As other last-minute stragglers trickle into the school, the office worker at the desk calmly picks up the phone to call the boy’s father, and another day in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has begun.
South Loop Elementary, one of CPS’s 602 schools, is a public neighborhood school centrally located in Dearborn Park, in the heart of Chicago’s South Loop. The walls are decorated with murals, an alcove has been turned into a jungle, and “I Can” statements adorn the bulletin boards. These statements are written by the children and serve as goals for the year. One such statement reads: “I can use the internet to research information about a topic.”
It’s obvious from a quick tour of the building that many of the students are busily working toward that goal. In the media center, seventh graders sit around the periphery of the room, playing games that teach them about history on one of the center’s 45 computers. Tables in the center of the room form a block where students gather around laptops, working on science fair projects. A light chatter fills the room as children talk excitedly to each other.
In a fifth-grade classroom, a chart on the wall outlines the rotating schedule of computer use, both in the classroom and in the media center. One child points to the chart and explains the rotation, adding that he is learning to use Microsoft Excel to create graphs and charts. When asked if they like using computers, the answer is unanimous: “Yes!” the students shout. When asked what technology does for learning, a boy in glasses raises his hand and says firmly, “It makes it exciting.”
This is a very different atmosphere from the way the school operated when Principal Patrick Baccillieri came aboard four years ago. At the time, South Loop had had six principals in the previous five years. The school was “totally segregated,” Baccillieri says, even though it was located in an integrated neighborhood. The only internet access was in the main office, and the computer lab boasted only a few ancient IBMs.
Baccillieri began working toward better technology solutions within the school, buying a new server and upgrading the infrastructure. (In the Chicago Public Schools, each individual school has discretion over its own budget.) Then, through a CPS Office of Technology Services (OTS) program called TECH|XL–which allows CPS schools to lease computers for a reasonable fee that includes maintenance– Baccillieri was able to bring in the 45 lab computers, plus a laptop cart complete with 15 more machines for classroom use.
He also helped the parents raise money so the school could hire a technology teacher and an assistant, and so it could reopen the media center, which had closed for lack of funding. Then he began to challenge the teachers to learn about technology by making such knowledge part of their expected skill set.
Now, the school’s media center and classrooms are filled with an increasingly tech-savvy student and teacher population. And these changes are helping to spur student achievement. South Loop educators are using handheld computers to administer reading assessments, and Earobics software from Cognitive Concepts is used to help fill the gaps in students’ reading abilities. The school also has a new electronic library system and is working to develop electronic portfolios for each student.
The results of these efforts? South Loop is the highest performing elementary school in the district–an achievement that is reflected in the demographics of its students. Four years ago, the school was 99 percent black and 91 percent low-income, Baccillieri says; now, it’s two-thirds black and 51 percent low-income. What that indicates, he says, is that more higher-income parents who have choices about where they send their children to school are electing to enroll them at South Loop.
The changes at the South Loop Elementary are remarkable not because they stand out from the rest of the schools in the CPS system, but because they don’t. While South Loop has seen extraordinary change, so have other city schools in recent years.
In fact, South Loop’s success story mirrors major changes that have been taking place in the Chicago Public Schools as a whole in the last threeand- a-half years, thanks largely to the district’s focus on strong leadership.
A businesslike approach
Chicago Public Schools is the nation’s third largest school district, with 602 schools, 26,548 teachers, and more than 438,500 students. With an impressive budget of about $140 million per year, the district’s Office of Technology Services (OTS) should have been a robust technology department, providing ever-improved technology services to schools.
But that wasn’t the case. When CPS’s current CIO, Robert Runcie, joined the school system in May 2003, he realized that, while the world had changed substantially, very little had changed over the last 20 or 30 years in Chicago’s classrooms. And the stagnation wasn’t just at the classroom level; CPS was working from a 40-year-old legacy system that had outlived its usefulness.
Eighty percent or more of the data needed to run the Chicago schools are data on the children, says Runcie: Are the kids showing up at school? Are they improving? How well are they performing? How many are graduating? Yet the schools were still taking manual attendance, doing manual grading, and creating schedules manually.
“If you want to find attendance, you have to call the school. If you want to find the grades, you have to call the school. All that is stored offline,” says Runcie. “In this day and age, that doesn’t make sense.”
Chicago did have a number of inherent strengths. The first and, perhaps, most important was its unusual governance structure. In 1995, Mayor Richard M. Daley was granted the ability to take control of the school system and appoint board members.
“Everybody told him he was crazy,” says Runcie, “but he’s been in office so long [and has such powerful connections that] we’ve been able to get the kind of leadership on our board that you’d never find in an elected board.”
The board members all have a strong business background, and the school superintendent–or CEO, as he’s called in the CPS system–reports directly to the board. Runcie himself reports directly to the CEO. Runcie, too, has a powerful business background. Having served as president of a management consulting and technology services company for seven years prior to joining CPS, and having worked with large technology integration companies, such as Arthur Andersen (now Accenture), he knew that the OTS needed to be run from a business standpoint rather than just as a “technology shop.”
Runcie brought on Maurice Woods–formerly principal consultant for IBM, specializing in developing and implementing corporate and operational strategies for Fortune 500 companies–as deputy chief information officer to run the OTS in that way. Woods agreed wholeheartedly with Runcie’s vision. “Our value is how much we can contribute to our business of educating students,” Woods says.
To run the OTS as a top-notch business enterprise, Runcie and Woods knew they needed to take some preliminary steps and begin making immediate changes.
Step No. 1: Reorganize staff.
When Woods first came aboard, there were about 300 OTS staff members, and about half of those were consultants, who came at a premium. “We implemented ‘insourcing,’ which reduced our consultants by 50 percent and saved us over $3 million,” he says.
Salaries and job titles also were rationalized. “The spans of control now make sense,” says Runcie.
Step No. 2: Bring in strong leadership.
Within OTS, hiring the right team players was a key to success. “This is almost like one large consulting opportunity,” says Runcie. “Without the right kind of people, you’d never get it done.”
This focus on strong leadership exists not only within the technology office, but also district-wide.
CPS has “identified the principals [of the schools] as being the core of what we do,” says Woods. “Our best schools have great principals. They are the CEOs of their businesses.”
Most school systems recognize the need for principals who are strong leaders– but this need is perhaps more important for CPS than elsewhere, because of another quirk in the system’s set-up: The schools are each, individually, in charge of their own budgets, and principals can allocate what they want or need toward technology purposes. They manage close to $30 million per year on technology alone.
“When I first came here, I thought, ‘This is outrageous, we have to have control,'” says Runcie. “But I’ve come to the realization that that’s not bad. It introduces a competitive market aspect into [what we do]. What’s beautiful about it is you give the leadership of the school to the principal, who’s like a CEO.”
Those principals, then, needed to be as strong as they could be, and CPS is currently replacing about 100 principals a year, bringing in those who have more of a technology focus. Over the course of five years, 65 percent of CPS’s principals will have been replaced. “That’s driving technology [use]” in the schools, says Runcie.
OTS also needed to find out exactly what school stakeholders wanted from a technology standpoint. So team members created a High School Technology Advisory Council and an Elementary School Technology Advisory Council. These councils consist of school principals, technology coordinators (depending on each school’s priorities, this could be a hired position or simply a teacher or assistant principal who takes on technology tasks on the side), and members of OTS.
Step No. 3: Reduce inefficiencies.
When Runcie arrived, he needed a quick win to make sure the board of directors, the OTS staff, and other stakeholders believed he could do the job.
Working with Woods, he cut $7 million out of the system, simply by eliminating inefficiencies such as overstaffing.
Another area ripe for cutting was in hardware. “There’s this thing called a multi-functional device,” Woods jokes. By replacing many of the district’s stand-alone fax machines, copiers, and printers with these devices, OTS was able to pull out another couple million dollars.
“With the quick-win mentality, we pulled the quick money out and reinvested it, so we got some credibility,” Runcie says.
Soon after Mayor Daley took over the school system, CPS invested $600 million to improve the infrastructure of the older schools, including rewiring them for more bandwidth. That initiative was completed in 2000. But before the new OTS team could implement major changes, the infrastructure had to be improved even more.
Now, each school in the system has its own server. As for OTS’s own servers, they are standardized on blade technology, which scales well, says Steve Dorner, deputy CIO in charge of infrastructure. “We can just add more servers to the group for any of the projects, plus it’s a smaller footprint so it takes up less space, and it’s cheaper,” he says. The whole system is built upon redundancy so that if one fails, the load shifts over to another.
To increase bandwidth, elementary schools were given single T-1 connections, and now OTS is in the process of giving them a second T-1 connection (300 schools have received this second line so far). All the district’s high schools now have a Gigabit Ethernet connection.
In addition to servers at every school, OTS maintains more than 29,000 active network electronics (switches, access points, routers, etc.); more than 89,000 active devices (computers, faxes, printers, etc.); 24,000 district phones; 600 PBX and key systems; 16,000 centrex lines; and more than 1,200 data circuits.
OTS also increased the amount of storage it is capable of holding to 35 terabytes (or more than 35,000 gigabytes) and will add another 34 terabytes this year–the amount it will need based on three-year growth projections. The district uses a remote location for its data backup, working with a company that picks up the tapes and stores them outside the city.
Office of eLearning
Of course, all that infrastructure would mean nothing without a plan for using it to enhance instruction. “Technology should not be driving what the needs are,” says Sharnell Jackson, chief eLearning officer. “It should be the other way around.”
Jackson was brought on board in September 2003 as the director of instructional technology. That department was later reorganized into the eLearning Office. Jackson’s first task was to find out what the needs of the schools were. She conducted nearly 20 interviews with principals, managers, directors, and technology coordinators– and the glaring need turned out to be literacy.
The yearly benchmark assessment for literacy was a nightmare for schools. Teachers had little training in technology, and their lowest skill level was in spreadsheets–yet they were expected to input the data from the paper-and-pencil benchmark assessments into Excel spreadsheets. Those results–pulled together in different ways for every teacher–were then sent to a central office, where they were slowly compiled.
“The teachers administered the test in November … and never received their results until the end of the school year,” says Jackson. “The teachers weren’t receiving the information they needed on their students” to effect any meaningful change in the classroom.
Jackson researched a technology solution and settled on the mClass Handheld-to-Web version of DIBELS (the “Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills” assessment). The wireless DIBELS solution allows teachers to administer the test to students on the handheld device, upload students’ answers, analyze the results, and send these results to the state. She presented the solution to the Office of Literacy and was given the green light to move forward.
There was, however, a catch: “I thought we could do 20 schools as a pilot,” says Jackson. But district officials wanted to implement the solution immediately in all 123 of CPS’s Reading First schools. “They called it a pilot; I called it an implementation,” she says wryly.
To make the implementation work, each of the schools identified a core team, made up of curriculum coordinators, key teachers, and literacy teachers. Jackson’s team trained those core teams–well over 1,000 teachers by the end of September 2004–and those teams, in turn, trained the schools’ individual teachers.
The schools were able to send the assessment data to the state by the target deadline of mid-October. State officials “had never seen that kind of response from Chicago,” Jackson says.
More profound, of course, was the impact for the teachers. The mClass DIBELS project cut the assessment time in half, from about 40 minutes per student to 20 or less. Even more important, the results of the tests could be seen almost at once. Teachers could identify gaps in each student’s knowledge and begin the process of filling those gaps immediately.
CPS decided to administer the tests three times a year, rather than just the two times–pre- and postyear– required by the state. That gives the district an extra opportunity to check progress in mid-year and adjust instruction accordingly.
The DIBELS program, however, highlighted an inherent problem with the system. While technology could point out the gaps in a student’s knowledge, that was only a first step. “It’s an assumption in this country that once a teacher has data, [he or she knows] what to do with the data,” says Jackson.
On the other hand, Jackson knew that professional development couldn’t help teachers much unless they had some basic technology skills. OTS considers itself a business, and the schools it services are its clients. “I wanted to know my clients and their technology skills,” Jackson says.
She decided to administer the Chicago Online Skills Assessment (COSA), which would test the level of very basic computer skills among all teachers. She knew, however, there would be some level of resistance from the teachers–not to mention from the teacher union.
“I went to the [school board] meeting and that was supposed to be last on the agenda, and it was first. There were 30 [union] reps in the room,” she says. She simply made it clear that the assessment was to be used only to identify what teachers’ technology needs were in order to address them. Nobody would know within a school who had taken or not taken the assessment (though the principal could see how many teachers had taken the assessment and what the aggregate results were), and nobody could access anybody’s results but their own.
But the real way Jackson avoided major conflict with the unions was by getting buy-in from stakeholders. If nobody complained, then the union didn’t have a case. She took the schools by storm, running an internal marketing campaign complete with posters and prizes. Posters read: “Attention high school teachers! Do you need more technology tools for your classrooms? Take or retake the Chicago Public Schools Online Skills Assessment…”
Prizes for the schools that had the most assessments taken included an interactive whiteboard, a desktop computer with flat-panel monitor, an LCD projector, and more. “I had teachers lined up to get the prizes,” Jackson says proudly.
The tests showed that only 14.6 percent of elementary teachers were proficient in the most basic skills–Excel, Word, basic internet surfing. High school teachers were only 14.8 percent proficient, and they had been given laptop computers two years earlier. That simply proved Jackson’s theory: “You can give [teachers] technology, but you have to teach them not only how to use it, but how to use it for instructional purposes. It takes a lot of professional development to teach them how to integrate it.”
Vision for the future
Technology cannot help school leaders improve the performance of their students if it exists in a vacuum. But if used effectively, says Runcie, “it can help our instructional leaders to be more effective in how they deliver teaching and learning to our students.”
Technology also can help break the isolation of teachers, he adds, pointing out that when teachers have the correct data and tools, different conversations begin to occur, and teachers interact with their peers more regularly.
Deputy CIO Woods envisions a day when CPS principals will walk around their buildings with handheld computers that give them a “dashboard” view into student data, security information, and so on–complete with “red-light indicators” that alert them to high-priority needs. He imagines them being able to order the products and services they need for their staff and students in real time from the central office–“customized solutions,” he notes, that are right for their schools, instead of “the same old black Model T.” Woods’ vision aptly articulates a core CPS strategy: enhancing human capital.
“Technology is a huge hammer in how we can change urban districts,” he concludes–both as a tool for better decision-making and a way to address iniquities and “level the global playing field.”