Jan 05 2011

From Adversity Comes Opportunity


There's no getting around it: Bad things happen. Natural disasters wipe out infrastructure and devastate lives; struggling students drop out of school because they've lost interest or lack the support they need to achieve.

Educators and IT professionals are stepping in to reverse these trends, however. Developing and following best practice–driven disaster recovery plans are helping schools mitigate the effects of loss and come out of the situation stronger. Data analytics are helping administrators identify students at risk of dropping out and implement programs to remediate skills and help them catch up. In both cases, schools are making lemonade out of lemons and setting powerful examples for other schools to emulate.

A disaster recovery plan is only as good as the thought that goes into it. School officials must take the time to develop a comprehensive plan that defines an acceptable recovery time objective and adequately addresses the storage, infrastructure, application and network needs (to name a few) that must be preserved following a disaster.

At Gulfport School District in Mississippi, Technology Director Terri Burnham thought she had a pretty solid disaster recovery plan in place. But those plans were no match for Hurricane Katrina. "We really had no idea what we were facing," she says.

About 130 of the district's 800 staff members lost their homes in the hurricane. "The emotional toll was huge," says Burnham, now retired. "It wasn't about the network, it was about people." Parents lost their jobs because their workplaces no longer existed. "You lose your sense of reason," she says. "You get overwhelmed."

E-Rate funds were instrumental to the district's rebuilding effort. "Any district with poverty can apply," Burnham points out. "It doesn't matter if your free and reduced-price lunch rate is 20 percent," your discount will be prorated based on that percentage.

Before the hurricane, backing up data five days a week seemed prudent enough for Gulfport. "But we learned to have redundant backup across the district in multiple locations," Burnham says. The district now uses an online service that stores data in another city.

To read more lessons learned by schools and districts that have faced disaster and recovered, read "Speaking from Experience."

Raising the Bar

A recent study by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center found that school dropouts often are from large, urban districts in poor communities and most likely members of historically disadvantaged minority groups. Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Ariz., is in that category: 90 percent of students are Hispanic, and 80 percent are low-income.

But Sunnyside's administration decided that proactive measures might reverse the school's "dropout factory" reputation. To accomplish that goal, the district implemented the Project Graduation initiative in 2007. The program offers a free netbook to every student who attends class, gets good grades, participates in at least one extracurricular activity and avoids suspension. And the program has worked, with a 28 percent increase in graduation rates since the 2007–2008 school year.

"We wanted to change the label from 'dropout factory' to 'tech-savvy district' – and we're accomplishing that," says Manuel L. Isquierdo, Sunnyside's super­inten­dent. "We want everyone, parents included, to expect our children to graduate. [Students should know that] they are expected to come to school, graduate and go to college."

For more examples of how schools are using technology to improve graduation rates, turn to "Crossing the Threshold."

Improving the Odds

U.S. graduation rates have begun to improve this decade, growing from 72 percent in 2001 to 75 percent in 2008, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education. Researchers have found that if educators have early-warning indicators that students are in danger of dropping out, as well as recommendations about how to intervene and re-engage at-risk students, those students' chances of graduating are much higher.

Ryan Petersen


<p>Matthew Gilson</p>

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