May 24 2022

Veteran K–12 CTO Shares His Tips for Designing the School Network of Your Dreams

Kyle Berger encourages ed tech leaders to ditch DIY, stop scheduling upgrades over the summer months and much more.

Taking on a K–12 school network transformation can be expensive, complicated, time-consuming and — if you make the wrong move — disappointing to thousands of end users.

To help you avoid those missteps, EdTech turned to Kyle Berger, CTO for the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District in Texas and one of EdTech’s 2022 K–12 IT influencers.

Berger has 22 years of experience as a school CTO and has been at GCISD, in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex for five years. The district has been one-to-one for 10 years, and switching to remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic took only 24 hours. Berger recently overhauled the network for his district of 14,000 students and is starting the upgrade process for Wi-Fi 6E. Check out the networking upgrade tips and tricks that put a smile on his face.

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Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

EDTECH: Tell us a little bit more about your background and how you came to your current role at Grapevine-Colleyville ISD.

BERGER: I came from the corporate world right when the dot-com industry was unfortunately having that bust. I landed in education, and I found it just a magnificent place where I could really have a bigger impact on the future.

EDTECH: I understand that your school district is completing network upgrades, and you’re planning to do Wi-Fi next. How did you know that it was time?

BERGER: We were coming up on what would have been a traditional replacement cycle, but that was magnified with the drastic increase of technology integration in our classrooms.

We needed to embrace a network that was designed for the rapid growth in bandwidth required for videoconferencing and all these other tools, but that could also address the growing needs of the Internet of Things devices that are coming onto our network and how we’re going to secure those.

And then just the security aspect overall — we probably could have kept our old network going, but the cost would have increased to maintain the older equipment while increasing our threat level.

DIG DEEPER: IoT technology makes gains in K–12 schools.

EDTECH: How does what happens in the classroom factor into that process?

BERGER: We can’t afford that downtime. Everybody talks about return on investment. I really look at what I call the return on instruction. I need to know what the uptime guarantee is. I need to know how this really is going to impact my classrooms.

And that was the thing that kind of led us to make this next move, because unfortunately you can start getting too far behind and then that hole is too big to dig out of and financially and everything else. You can’t do it.

EDTECH: Were there any specific changes that you wanted to see come out of this upgrade?

BERGER: Beyond increasing our bandwidth, what we looked for is ease of management for our staff.

In education, our staff isn’t growing. It’s getting a lot more difficult to acquire staff to manage and do all these things. I can’t have a network that needs three or four or five people to manage.

So, we were really looking at solutions that can bring that management to the traditional one pane of glass for my network administrators, and also give us more flexibility and granular control inside the network because we have so many more things on the network.

We were also looking at some of the software-defined networking features and things that will allow us the flexibility to grow within our network.

We want to take it beyond just that box in the rack to see what it can really do on our network and how it can not only help us expand those possibilities for our kids, but also empower our staff.

RELATED: Discover three ways to support understaffed IT departments.

EDTECH: So, tell us what specific changes you made during this process, the brands that you ended up going with and why.

BERGER: We did our complete network from core to edge. We did that to have the least amount of impact on our users.

We adopted Cisco throughout the network and even on the wireless side that we’re going to start working on. Using the power of Cisco, we could really balance the different types of switching and technology we needed and have some flexibility and a little more interoperability there, and utilize that single pane of glass and a lot of the tools in the Cisco DNA control centers.

You get a deeper view into what’s happening on your network and are able to identify issues more quickly and make those modifications.

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EDTECH: We know, for schools, the summer is when teams typically make these network upgrades. But it sounds like, for you, this upgrade started in the fall while the kids were in school.

BERGER: You often see the traditional network refresh get squeezed into that summer time frame. In the past, that’s the way we’ve always done it. Sometimes the gamble with that, though, is that our network loads and usage really aren’t there.

We started last summer. We really segmented and broke out the project and stretched it out throughout the school year.

The most critical part at the end for us was the core. It really worked to focus the team to do a lot of that on the weekends and after hours, so that there would be no downtime during the day.

DISCOVER: Check out these updates to minimize disruption during the school year.

EDTECH: What are some of your greatest takeaways from this process?

BERGER: Over my 22 years, I’ve done several network refreshes. This one was a little different because of what has changed for us all globally — supply chain. Some of the network equipment has lead times of 150 to 300 days. So, you don’t just start today thinking that I’m going to switch my network out in three months or six months. You have to pull that back even further and start those conversations earlier.

I think it’s very important to work directly with the manufacturers to understand their supply chains and how things are looking so that you can plan.

EDTECH: What else should K–12 IT teams be thinking about as they start the planning process?

BERGER: The other thing to consider is the impact on your technology staff. Everybody’s tired, everybody’s been stretched so thin the past couple of years.

You really need to evaluate how much you are willing to take on with your staff and how much easier it is to have the provider do it for you.

So, I’m working with providers that can help with that. You have to be very strategic with a lot more conversations in partnership. And that’s the key — it is a partnership. You can buy a SKU for a switch from anybody. It takes a partnership to make it work.

EDTECH: What were some things that you farmed out to your outside service providers instead of having your very exhausted team take on?

BERGER: I leaned on the manufacturers first to help with our design plan. My team sat down with Cisco and worked out designing that network.

And then I started looking for my partners to help implement. We partner with CDW on some of these projects, so now it’s almost like a second set of eyes on the design.

I can pay my partners to bring people in to unscrew things out of my rack, screw the new ones in there, put the patch cables in and be done with it.

They have the infrastructure ability and warehousing and other facilities to do that a lot more easily than we could. Let them take those steps for you.

Then it comes down to the more in-depth reviews of how to get our core switched over, and that aspect is important with all-around project management, working with that company’s project managers to help keep everything on track — not only you and your own staff, but them as well. And that really helps.

EDTECH: What has been the impact of these upgrades in the classroom and on your team?

BERGER: The benefit that we’ve seen come out of this, of course, is the ability to ease the congestion on our network with expanded bandwidth. We’ve been able to segment with a little more granularity, and it’s given us that flexibility to do that a lot more.

We’re able to notice those issues before they become issues. That’s really important for us and has almost given a sense of pride to the team because they can be less reactive with it and more proactive, instead of the firefighter aspect.

And then there’s the responsibility that’s upon us for 24/7 uptime, and we’re able to do that. And it’s allowing my team to provide that without the heavy burden or stress that used to be there overall.

Click the banner to find more K–12 networking solutions and expert advice.

EDTECH: What does the next five years look like for ed tech at Grapevine-Colleyville ISD?

BERGER: I’m really looking at more in-depth, AR/VR immersive technology for our students to give them more holistic learning experiences.

We are thinking of how we can modify our technology to fit the needs of the new emerging world that our kids are going to be entering.

EDTECH: That’s awesome! And what’s next for Grapevine-Colleyville’s IT team?

BERGER: We talk about preparing the kids in our classrooms today for a future that we don’t even know yet.

You have to have that same mindset for your network. You’re preparing and building a network for a future that you are not sure of yet. So, that’s what’s next. We need to have a network that can grow with us and give us that flexibility.

Illustration by Ollie Hirst

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