May 08 2007

The Inside Scoop

An Arizona school district's Intranet solution places key information at teachers' fingertips, while facilitating communication and streamlining IT functions.

By Melissa B. Tamberg

The elimination of "educational autopsies" within the Peoria Unified School District in Glendale, Ariz., is just one of many benefits being celebrated by teachers, administrators and students alike, thanks to increased access to pertinent information afforded by the district's Intranet solution.

"With an autopsy, you look back at something that can't be changed," explains Larry Buchanan, administrator for information management and technology for the district, which serves some 37,000 students at 30 elementary and eight high schools. "We now have a tool that allows us to intervene and make instructional adjustments throughout the term, rather than just looking back at the end, when it is often too late."

That tool-- one of numerous customized applications residing on the district's continuously burgeoning Intranet site -- is a decision-support system that grants teachers access to state and district benchmark test scores and other academic achievement information for all students.

"That is a huge piece of our Intranet," Buchanan emphasizes. "It enables teachers to make instructional adjustments on the fly, which is tremendously beneficial."

What began seven years ago as a single internal Web server has now evolved into a vast portal that provides an environment for the publication of an array of information, while also facilitating the opportunity for collaborative project-sharing. From making human resources information readily available to employees, to posting district announcements, to providing a gateway to individual school Web sites, Peoria's Intranet has changed the way the K-12 learning community conducts its day-to-day operations.

"We can share vast amounts of information with the various people who need it, and the portal provides a way to organize all of it," explains Jill Thomas, director of IMT information systems for the district. Buchanan also says, "If someone needs information, it is out there, indexed and easy to get."

Streamlining IT Needs

For information technology staffers, this seamless sharing of information has resulted in increased efficiency and a streamlining of functions that previously required support from the IMT team. For example, teachers are able to manage students' access to both the Intranet and the Internet, as well as quickly change student passwords for network and e-mail accounts, all without any intervention from the IMT department. Without this easy accessibility, "Our IT help desk would be buried with 37,000 students calling for their passwords," Thomas says.

Through the portal, teachers can also publish homework assignments, with students submitting work electronically. In addition, the Intranet provides a forum through which department leaders and administrators can set up agendas, post progress on activities, host interactive meetings, and quickly troubleshoot problems.

With the constant addition of new customized applications, such as a database for Title I information and an appliance for the district's gifted learning department, as well as the publication of an ever-evolving stream of new information and communication, PUSD's Intranet has become a foundation tool for the entire district.

"There are very few people who aren't using it," Buchanan reports. "It has evolved so tremendously. What began as one server containing employee information has become a huge cloud of valuable information."

Setting Up Your Own Intranet?

Consider these important tips.

While an Intranet is capable of delivering numerous benefits, it is critical that the proper resources are in place before you begin implementation. Consider the following:

Assess your network infrastructure. Make sure your district or school has a robust network capable of supporting an Intranet solution. In the Peoria Unified School District in Glendale, Ariz., for example, the ever-growing portal system was beginning to tax its wide-area network, which forced the district to make some network adjustments.

Build as you go. Rather than attempting to implement the entire site at once, build your Intranet out based on a timeline. "Decide what your goal is," advises Larry Buchanan, IMT administrator for PUSD, which initially delivered information geared to its central office, then expanded out to administrators, teachers and students from there. "You can't do it all at once, so pick a target and start with that," Buchanan says.

Be sure to include training. The key to a successful rollout is to properly train users on items, such as how to post files and how to search for information.

Develop an ongoing maintenance plan.

An Intranet is only as effective as the information it contains, so make sure each department head or school administrator is responsible for reviewing, updating and maintaining the content for their section of the Intranet. This is not a responsibility that should be placed on the IT department.