Rags to Riches

Three years ago, Moore County Schools was ranked near the bottom in North Carolina for technology in its classrooms. Now, the district is rising to the top. Here's how they did it.

Wylie Wong

WHEN MOORE COUNTY SCHOOLS officials hired James Tagliareni as chief technology officer three years ago, they asked him to perform a seemingly impossible task: Turn around a North Carolina school district that ranked 111th out of 117 in the state for technology in its schools—and do it on a shoestring budget.

More than 12,000 students attend Moore County Schools, located in Carthage, N.C. When Tagliareni arrived there, he visited the district's 22 schools to see firsthand the formidable assignment that awaited him.

 

Most teachers didn’t have e-mail or even a single computer in their classrooms. Seven schools weren’t networked. Those that were networked had a connection speed to the Internet of only 56 kilobits per second (Kbps). One school had a lab full of computers that were first released in 1983, and another had computers running Microsoft Windows 3.1, released in 1992. Despite the obstacles, Tagliareni was unfazed.

 

In three years, he’s replaced the district’s antiquated technology with state-of-the-art equipment, and every teacher now has e-mail, as well as several computers running Windows XP in their classrooms. All schools are networked with a minimum of a T1 bandwidth; most are connected at 10 megabits per second, which is faster than a T2 line.

Tagliareni nearly tripled the number of computers in the district and launched a training program to help teachers incorporate technology into their classrooms.

“It’s been a huge change,” says Randy Brady, a biology and earth science teacher at North Moore High School. “Before, there was hardly any technology at all.”

Moving Up

After the 2004-2005 school year, Moore County Schools ranked 16th in the state for technology, and Tagliareni is setting his sights on cracking the top 10. He’s doing it without a boost in IT spending. In fact, the district’s IT budget—about $1.4 million a year, half for IT equipment and half for salaries—has dwindled by about 7 percent since his arrival.

Tagliareni and his IT staff are carrying out Moore County Schools’ overhaul with good planning, wise spending and new technology that has made school staff more efficient. The district has cut costs by halting all IT outsourcing and bringing the work in-house. The money saved is used to purchase new technology and to train teachers to integrate technology into their classroom lessons.

Teachers who spice up their lessons with technology are discovering that students are more engaged in class. Some principals say their students’ scores on state computer proficiency tests have risen. For districts that are facing similar budget constraints and technology needs, Moore County Schools’ success is a good example of what can be accomplished.

Michael Metcalf, former principal of Southern Middle School and now the principal of Moore County Schools’ Pinckney Academy, says smarter buying decisions and a focus on training teachers have allowed the school district to improve classroom technology. “By increasing the technological knowledge base of our staff and making strong decisions about hardware expenditures, we are able to get more bang for the buck,” explains Metcalf, who saw a boost in his eighth-graders’ state computer proficiency test scores.

“The classes are more alive with technological activity,” he adds. “The confidence level of our staff and our students in the use and application of technology has increased dramatically.”

Got Problems?

During Tagliareni’s initial tour of schools, he discovered that help desk support was backlogged for months, that district servers ran multiple operating systems and that the district had its own digital divide. Because the IT department previously allowed individual schools to make their own IT purchasing decisions, a few schools that made technology a priority owned new computers. The majority had few computers—and the ones they had were ancient.

“There was no continuity in the school district at all,” Tagliareni recalls.

Tagliareni met with principals and teachers to find out their needs and then developed an IT roadmap. One main goal was to infuse each school with technology and make sure it was done equally across the district, says Georgianna Kiggins, who as director of media and technology resources manages the district’s librarians.

“You don’t want ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in terms of technology in education,” Kiggins points out. “It’s not fair to students. So we focused on getting all the schools equal in technology.”

With the superintendent giving him broad powers, Tagliareni gave IT oversight of all tech purchases. He also set IT standards for each school, including minimum specifications for computers.

Tagliareni told school staff to clear out the old computers. Of the 1,800 PCs he inherited, only 350 were worth keeping. Principals initially balked at disposing of the old PCs, but Tagliareni convinced them by promising newer technology.

Tech Overhaul

Since 2002, Tagliareni and his 13 IT staffers have overhauled Moore County Schools’ tech infrastructure with all new networking equipment, new servers and about 5,000 new desktop computers.

Besides computers, the district has purchased personal digital assistants (PDAs) and interactive whiteboards for classroom use. It has equipped every teacher with e-mail access and purchased new software.

In addition to boosting Internet access from 56Kbps to T1 speeds, the IT department has deployed new Web-based technology. This saves time and improves communications for school administrators and teachers.

The district created an online grading and attendance system that allows parents to check how their children are faring. The IT department is training teachers to develop their own Web pages, so students can download class materials from home or check their homework assignments if they are absent.

Tagliareni offers Internet-based training for teachers who want to learn how to use basic technology. He has even developed an online help desk, where teachers and school administrators submit their requests via a Web site. This allows the IT department to better track help desk requests and give priority to the most urgent needs.

Remote connectivity tools also have been installed, so IT staffers can remotely take control of computers and fix problems without having to drive to school sites. Now the IT staff can resolve nearly all problems in one day.

To pay for the tech projects, Tagliareni took a phased approach, divvying up projects over the course of two to three years and giving priority to areas with the most urgent needs. During his first year, for example, he focused on making sure that every classroom had at least one computer and building networks in the seven schools that weren’t networked.

Tagliareni found ways to cut IT spending and funnel the saved money to pay for tech projects. In his first year, he eliminated IT outsourcing and put contracts out to bid to get the lowest possible prices when purchasing equipment. That strategy reduced the district’s average computer purchase price from $1,200 to $400, he says.

Getting Results

All the technology in the world wouldn’t be effective without the support of teachers. During the past two years, Tagliareni has offered online training courses on technology, and he also has dedicated IT staffers who instruct teachers on incorporating technology into their lessons.

Many are doing it already. Brady uses a SMART Board, an interactive whiteboard that is connected to his computer, so he can project the computer screen onto the whiteboard to give students a richer multimedia learning experience. For his lectures, he develops Microsoft PowerPoint presentations that include scientific video clips.

“It gives me more diversity on how I present lessons,” he says. “I can also have students conduct research on computers. The technology keeps classes from being monotonous.”

For future scientific experiences, Brady plans to equip students with PDAs that have special probes attached to allow them to measure water temperature or monitor heart rates.

Dawn Lanier, a long-time technology proponent and first-grade teacher at Cameron Elementary School, says the district’s push to increase technology in the curriculum is having an impact on teachers. “Some are still hesitant, but I’m seeing more teachers take the risk of trying an activity with technology,” she says.

Laura Farrell, a math teacher at Union Pines High School who uses SMART Boards and computers in class, says teachers are getting more tech-savvy because of the lessons they are learning from the technology staff. “It’s really pushed us forward,” she says. “It helps our skills as teachers, and we can impart that wisdom to students.”

Tagliareni is pleased that Moore County Schools now has 2.5 students per computer, but he refuses to rest on his laurels.

With the technology infrastructure completed, he wants to increase the number of PDAs and SMART Boards in schools. He’s also working with the county sheriff’s office to build a wireless wide area network that could further increase the school district’s bandwidth. His biggest focus in the coming year is to use a large chunk of his budget to give teachers more technology training.

“We’ve really worked on giving teachers what they need,” Tagliareni says.

I.T. ON A TIGHT BUDGET

Got a small budget, but need to spruce up your school district’s technology? James Tagliareni, the chief technology officer of Moore County Schools in Carthage, N.C., shares his tips on how to revamp your tech infrastructure.

1. Get support. It’s critical to have the support of the superintendent, but you also need to meet with principals and teachers. Learn what their needs are and develop a plan to meet those needs.

2. Assess the IT situation. Take inventory of the district’s technology to determine the scope of your project.

3. Standardize. Develop new IT standards for the district, such as minimum computer requirements.

4. Review IT staff. Assess your staff to determine whether they have the necessary training and expertise. If not, get them training or make staffing changes.

5. Create new procedures for IT staff. If no uniform policies are in place, you must develop them. For example, if no policy exists for requesting and handling help desk support, create one.

6. Prioritize projects. When you’re on a limited budget, focus on improving the hardware and software infrastructure first. Take a phased approach, and give yourself several years to complete projects.

7. Invest in teacher training programs. Don’t just teach teachers how to use technology. Train them to incorporate the technology into the curriculum.

8. Shop for deals. Find savings by reviewing existing IT maintenance contracts and doing comparison shopping when you buy new technology. Review outsourced IT work to determine whether you can do the work in-house for less money.

9. Assist schools in securing grants. Many tech companies donate money or technology for school projects.

Wylie Wong is a technology writer and co-author of Giants: Where Have You Gone? about former San Francisco Giants.

Oct 31 2006

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