Administrative Assistance III

Here's how a fast-growing Texas school district got its out-of-control IT infrastructure on the right course.

Melissa Solomon

AFTER HURRICANE KATRINA STRUCK the Gulf Coast, displaced families fled to Houston in search of dry land. That left area schools scrambling to accommodate thousands of last-minute emergency students during the already hectic start of the new school year.

Many schools floundered, but thanks to its centralized data warehouse, Katy Independent School District (ISD) was able to handle the influx efficiently, produce timely reports on its changing student population and immediately recoup costs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We could quickly determine how many kids were enrolled, when they left, where they lived and what campuses were affected,” says Scott Wright, executive director of technology operations at Katy ISD, which has more than 47,000 students and about 5,600 staff members in 44 schools.

Had the hurricane struck a few years earlier, Katy ISD, which encompasses 181 square miles in east Texas, would most likely have been among the harder-hit districts. Its technology infrastructure had been pieced together through the years with little foresight, and the district struggled to keep pace with its fast-growing population.

Three years later, the school district has undergone a complete makeover. Its IT department is run like that of a corporation, with a centralized state-of-the-art architecture that’s upgraded and enhanced each year. The still-evolving transformation is the result of years of growing pains, but it has helped Katy’s leaders get back into the driver’s seat and steer the district’s IT operation onto the right course.

Districts nationwide are struggling with the problems Katy ISD once faced. But with a clear IT vision, strategy and policies, they, too, can rebuild their infrastructures so that they’re in control of the technology rather than the other way around, Katy’s IT architects say. “Whether you’re a district of 200 or 200,000, there has to be a strategy for technology,” says Lenny Schad, Katy ISD’s deputy superintendent of information and technology services.

The district uses a division-of-labor approach to implement its IT strategy. Curriculum specialists develop and manage instructional support for the classrooms, while the IT staff supports 18,000 desktops, 50,000 users and 150 miles of fiber-optic cable connecting the campuses.

The third leg of Katy ISD’s IT division of labor is handled by CDW Government. Instead of keeping a stockroom of spare parts in the district, CDW•G manages the procurement and software licensing and recommends new hardware. When the district needs a part, it is delivered the next day.

GROWING PAINS

The district’s technology transformation consisted of a few key steps, the first of which was hiring leaders with experience managing IT organizations and big budgets. Schad and Wright, the new department leaders, were former IT executives in the oil and gas industry. “We’re not the ‘principal of a high school turned IT administrator,’” Wright says. “We’re IT professionals.”

Schad and Wright standardized and locked down desktops and changed the way grades were kept, the way students were registered, the ID badges used in the school and even the way the cafeteria was run. They spared nothing and no one.

“That first year was … whew, it was ugly,” Schad admits. “We were turning everybody’s world upside down. The perception was that we were preventing teachers from teaching and children from learning.”

But they gave ample warning of the obstacles ahead, and their honesty and foresight earned them the support of the superintendent, Leonard Merrell, who defended their initiatives.

Schad and Wright insisted that a key factor for success would be to give IT a seat at the district leadership table, and with their peer leaders, they were able to develop a strategy for technology that was aligned with overall district goals. A major piece of that strategy was to centralize technology and data at the district level so that the IT team could manage the infrastructure.

The two men are still at it, introducing new initiatives and changing work processes. “Three years later, we have not stopped the momentum,” Schad says. “But the district is attuned to change. They textcafe join-from 9 understand that it’s just part of the way we operate.”

“I think we learned in that first year that we did way too much,” he reflects. So the second year, IT limited itself to a new student management system project and phased it in so it would affect only small pockets of users at a time.

“The system is as intrusive to a district as an ERP [enterprise resource planning] system is to a business,” Schad says. “It changes the way people have worked for 20 years.”

But, he says, now that staff members have seen the benefits of these IT projects, they trust the process. That’s important, he adds, because the real bang for the buck comes from re-engineering old work processes to be more efficient in today’s world.

“We’ve changed not just the infrastructure, but the culture within the district,” Schad says. “We’re no longer fighting the we-want-it-the-way-it-was argument. I haven’t heard that in years.”

Melissa Solomon is a technology writer in Austin, Texas.

BY THE NUMBERS

The no-nonsense business approach of the IT department at Katy Independent School District helps district leaders stay on top of an infrastructure with:

200 servers

25 million files

350 daily user requests

100,000 daily e-mails

65,000 daily phone calls

TWO MILLION LESSON PLANS ... AND COUNTING

One day, Elise Jacobson donned a wig and spoke in a kooky accent for a streaming video she made for her class. Another time, she posed as Jeopardy host Alex Trebek and plied her students with answers to questions they had to guess.

Jacobson, a third-grade teacher at James Williams Elementary in Katy, Texas, is constantly seeking new ways to keep her students excited about learning. With access to two million lesson plans on a districtwide database, she doesn’t expect to run out of fresh ideas anytime soon.

“It’s phenomenal,” Jacobson says of the Katy Management of Automated Curriculum (KMAC) system. “It has absolutely strengthened this district.”

KMAC is the teacher interface for the Katy Management System (KMS), a homegrown online database containing curriculum guides for every grade level and subject in the district. The curricula are tied to state and federal standards, and they contain aligned multimedia resources and strategies. “We wanted what we call one-stop shopping,” says Elizabeth Clark, Katy Independent School District’s (ISD’s) deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

The system was created to store the hundreds of curriculum guides developed by the district’s curriculum specialists, who wanted to organize them so they could evolve with changing student needs, data and standards.

Through KMAC, educators can upload their own lesson plans, pull ideas from their peers or enhance existing plans from the system. “It just seems so senseless with so much on our plates to be struggling to produce something that somebody down the hall has already created,” Jacobson says.

Sharing and Learning

The KMS spells out which objectives must be covered every six weeks for each subject and grade. For example, Jacobson’s students are learning the same topics as every other third-grade class in Katy. The lesson plans in KMAC also follow a specific template — with flexibility — so teachers can share them with their peers.

Since the curriculum is aligned districtwide, teachers can even partner on collaborative lesson plans with teachers in other classrooms in the district. Jacobson can use her school’s television station and online chat tools, for instance, to hold a multiclass competition between other schools. The aligned curriculum also lets teachers see what their students previously learned and what they will learn in the following years. That way, they can work as a team to ensure students are learning all required skills. “This system has given everyone a common view of what should be happening at every grade level in every subject,” Clark explains. “Never before have teachers had that ability to view curriculum in its entirety.”

“We don’t have a low-performing school and a high-performing school because they’re all teaching from the same game plan,” says Scott Wright, executive director of technology operations for Katy ISD.

The KMS, which is Web-based and built with a Microsoft toolset, is enhanced each year with user feedback. The next phase, Clark says, is to build in assessments so faculty can track student performance online.

Allowing educators to take charge of instructional technology is key to success, Wright says.

Oct 31 2006

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