Forsyth runs some of its teacher-training sessions on Saturdays. A recent conference attracted 500 staffers.

Apr 17 2008

Making the Connection

This progressive Georgia district has created a robust network to connect teachers, students and parents.

This progressive Georgia district has created a robust network to connect teachers, students and parents.

Connecting people and sharing information is one of the Internet’s strong suits, so when my school district, Forsyth (Ga.) County Schools, looked at how best to achieve the goal of a superior education for all students, connectivity and the Internet were key.

Our fast-growing district of 31,000 students has a clear mission: Allow students to be able to reach each other and their school network 24 x 7, encourage teachers to maintain informational sites, and provide parents a portal where they can track their children’s progress — and discipline — in real time.

Reaching Students

The district reaches out to students in several ways, most recently by creating a student portal through a Citrix Remote Gateway. This allows students to log in to school projects from home, school or the local coffee shop, and to have access to all the applications they are accustomed to using at school.

We allow our high school students to bring in their own Internet devices. Students can access the Web on the wireless network one layer removed from the school’s wired network, allowing the schools to maintain the necessary security. We find that if students have ubiquitous access, they will gladly meet us in the middle and accept some restrictions.

In our district, we’ve already seen students using their personal Wi-Fi devices such as BlackBerries and ultra-mobile PCs. One day recently, to our surprise, we even found that 58 students were connected using their Apple iPod Touches.

Getting Teachers Up to Speed

Each teacher in the district has a notebook, and principals recently received BlackBerries.

Teachers’ online activities started slowly; most created a basic Web page as a way to share homework assignments with students and parents. We started a content-management system two years ago, creating a self-authoring page where teachers can post class lessons, links and other study aides.

This fall, we implemented a learning management system for middle and high schools as a comprehensive e-learning solution for delivering Web-enhanced and online classes. We now have a mechanism for the practical implementation of a standards-based curriculum that uses high leverage teaching strategies. This system’s ease of use makes it possible for teachers to develop and implement a technology-rich curriculum that reflects institutional vision and individual pedagogical styles.

One interesting phenomenon sprang up recently when we put interactive whiteboards in our 1,800 classrooms. Our speedboats — what we call the top adapters among our faculty — had no trouble using the tools. We found these top teachers were collaborating with our tug- boats — teachers who are excited about the possibility of the new tool but who need support.

But when it came to the teachers who were reluctant to start using the whiteboards, we found their students pushing them to incorporate the tools. Students would tell teachers, “Hey, the school bought that for us.” That pressure, combined with most students’ ability to outperform teachers on the whiteboard, helped bring along these teachers to integrate the equipment.

Forsyth has one instructional technology specialist at each school, and I’d double that if we could afford it. These staff model the use of technology and can take over a class while showing teachers new uses for tools. In addition, they help us share best practices from other teachers.

Parent Connectivity

The importance of our student information portal didn’t become apparent until we turned the system off during the holiday break at the end of December.

This portal allows parents to stay up-to-date on their students’ grades as well as their class activities, upcoming work and any disciplinary actions. As Forsyth switched systems, we turned off access for 15 days. One night, right before a board meeting, I turned the new system on. Within a minute, my phone rang.

It was a parent trying to get on who had forgotten her password. I asked her if she had been waiting for the new system, and she said, “I have. I have five kids. I have to have this.” Do not underestimate your parents’ urgency for getting onto this system. In fact, in the middle of the day, we have more parents logged on than we do teachers.

It’s the district’s responsibility to make sure parents can understand the information they are presented and not get sideways if they see their child has one C. We try to present a “balanced” online view of a student’s progress by showing several indicators of academic achievement. It’s already changed the types of conversations parents have with teachers. During conferences, teachers don’t have to spend half the time going over grades, and parents come in with specific questions, asking how they can enhance what their children are learning, or looking for remediation tips that may help their children better comprehend the material.

Running Out of Internet

Underpinning all these improvements and the push to get teachers, students and parents better connected is the district’s ability to support this traffic without fail or delay.

At the beginning of this school year, Forsyth County’s network ground to a halt. Simply put, we ran out of Internet. It was painful; our system started to hiccup on a regular basis.

We cut back on streaming audio and video immediately, but we knew this was a temporary solution. We had about 80 megabytes out to the Internet going to each school at the beginning of the year. In April, we bumped it up to 140Mbps. By the end of the school year, we expect to have each school up to 350Mbps. I tell my peers, you’ll run out soon, and most already have.