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Ahead of the Curve

This California district owes its tech success not to bells and whistles, but to old fashioned visio

When George Araya left his position as a math teacher in 1993 to take on technology administration for Southern California's Desert Sands Unified School District, there wasn't much to administrate. After all, the schools had no computers, no network and no plan for getting wired. But his desktop wasn't clear for long.

With 21 schools to prepare for the 21st century, Araya realized the first thing he needed wasn't just an immediate strategy for getting the schools networked, but a long-term vision of how to make the district as technologically advanced as possible. For that, he needed funding, cooperation from teachers and board members, and sophisticated equipment. After a decade of implementation, he has them all.

Putting the pieces together for a complex technology implementation has presented numerous challenges, but Araya has never doubted that it's been worth it. "With technology, students can learn better, and teachers can teach better," he says. "Even people that work in the office can do what they do better. It improves performance at every level."

Getting Wired

To get Desert Sands on the right technology path (or, indeed, any technology path), the schools needed to get networked. But as every IT administrator knows, going from nothing to networked can be a pricey endeavor. Doing dial-up access wasn't an option because of its sluggish performance, and cable modems or DSL broadband wouldn't work for future technology plans. It had to be super speedy T1 lines, Araya knew, but the connections would cost about $1,500 per month, per school.

One other option existed: microwave. Most schools and corporations weren't embarking on using microwave technology for networking because the initial costs seemed staggering. For Desert Sands, it would mean an immediate cash outlay of $35,000 per school. The school board flinched, but Araya repeatedly presented a compelling argument, that a high initial investment would mean low operating costs, and a much better return on investment. Microwave systems deliver six times the capacity of T1 lines, and the district would begin saving money after only two years. The district saw the plan's fiscal wisdom, and Araya's technology plans got started. Because they were starting from scratch, it took almost three years to put the kind of system in place that Araya wanted.

Desert Sands is on the cutting edge not just because the district has spiffy projectors and a killer network. Rather, it's ahead of the curve because of attributes that have nothing to do with technology: vision, conviction, and strategic thinking. -George Araya, tech administrator, Desert Sands Unified School District

Everything hinged on being able to implement networks, Araya says. Without a way to bring the schools together and share resources, computers and software would have had much less power to change the way teaching and administration were done. "It was vital, very much a main thing that needed to happen," he says. Without a high-speed network, the technology team would have spent a great deal of time shuttling from one school to another. Instead, technology staffers can check on any part of the system from a centralized location and easily install applications that can be used across the district.

Once the high-speed network was in place, the technology team worked on bringing in computers, and the district now has about 6,000 PCs. Software for every aspect of the district was implemented as well, from office applications for administrators, to lesson plan and grading software for teachers. For backup, the district installed LiveBackup from Storactive in order to have file recovery and remote PC repair.

Recently, the district invested $400,000 in Sony network projectors, which are connected using a two-way IP pipeline. This allows them to be managed and maintained remotely, reducing the cost of sending technology staff to do minor repairs and routine tasks. Sanders Phipps, product manager for Sony's projector division, says that the setup at Desert Sands is notable for being more advanced than most other districts.

"They've worked on taking advantage of the network interface capabilities," Phipps says. "The classrooms don't have to have a dedicated PC. Instead, teachers can put their lesson plans or presentations on a centralized server."

Third-grade teacher Paula Cook appreciates how well the projectors fit in with the many other technology components for her class. During one period, students were reading a story that had hieroglyphics, and several expressed an interest in learning more about them. During recess, Cook went online and found good information about hieroglyphics, then put together a short lesson on the topic. When the students came back, she used the projector to present the material, and her students were delighted to revisit the subject so quickly. "It really enriched their understanding of the story," Cook says. "It's wonderful to be able to have those kind of resources, and to be able to act so immediately in order to teach."

Making It Possible

As most districts have found, implementing technology can be a beneficial strategy, but it can also be a pricey one. Araya and other members of the technology team knew their goals were ambitious and would require a large amount of investment. Rather than phase technology into the district slowly with existing budget money, they decided to get most of the money through grants.

Grant writing is a common tactic for obtaining additional funds, but at Desert Sands it turned into an aggressive mania. Technology project teacher Becky Howery says, "We began with some internal funding that the district allocated, but we realized pretty quickly that it wasn't enough. So we began to apply for funding everywhere. And I mean everywhere."

Their efforts paid off in a variety of grants, including ones that brought doctoral students into the schools to study the effects of technology on student performance. Those grants in particular are beneficial because they allow the district to buy more equipment, and get solid research done on how students are responding to technology use. Grant writing also allowed the district to implement the microwave-based network Araya wanted, when it received a grant from the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California.

In 2002, the district was awarded a Department of Education grant of $9 million, as part of the No Child Left Behind act. It was one of only 13 districts nationwide to receive $23.8 million in grant money tied to the bill. At the time, U.S. Rep. Mary Bono noted that the grant was awarded to Desert Sands partly because of its compelling ALEKS program, an Internet-based interactive software application that aided students with math. With the program, students learn math concepts through an online tutorial system that helps them advance as they master specific areas. Teachers can access the system to monitor their progress.

To use its grant money most effectively, the district also negotiated deals with vendors and found ways to have vendors work as a consortium for even better pricing. With funding secure and educational discounts in place, there remained only one major obstacle for widespread success: getting teachers on board.

"Training has always been a big challenge," Araya says. "Having technology is great, but if teachers don't use it, it's worthless." The difficulty has been in getting teachers to be comfortable with the available tools, he adds. Teachers have different levels of technology experience, which makes the training process even more difficult. But Araya notes that the district meets the challenge with unusual resolve. "We don't give them a choice," he says. "Really, they have no option."

Third-grade teacher Paula Cook uses her tech tools to create lesson plans on the fly. When students are at recess, she goes online to supplement an earlier lesson. When they return, she delivers the mini-lesson via the classroom's projectors.

Illustrating why teachers have to get in the technological swim or else, the district is moving toward an all-electronic model within the next year. Already, all attendance and grading information is online-only, and next year the district-wide gray book will be online as well. Teachers are also asked to communicate with parents through electronic means like e-mail. Araya says: "It's the only way to do it. We're creating a new model for doing business, and for providing a learning environment, and they have to be part of that."

Brandi Davis, one of the doctoral students doing work in the district, notes that in the last two years especially there's been much effort put in getting teachers up to speed quickly. The recent grant has enabled the district to bring in additional technology coaches that assist teachers in getting trained. Teachers are also given incentives like digital cameras, Palms or laptops that they can use in their classrooms. She notes that as teachers become more comfortable with technology, informal training has also been growing.

"What's happening is that teachers are getting support from other teachers," Davis says. "Some become mentors. Sometimes there's a resistance, because some people feel like they don't have the time. But in general, teachers realize that if they want their kids to survive in this century, they have to jump in and learn about technology."

Seeing a Difference

The results of the widespread technology implementation at Desert Sands have been positive, says Howery. Through the work of doctoral students like Davis, the district has been able to gauge the progress of students, as well as the changing attitudes of teachers.

Howery notes that they've seen a steady increase in standardized test scores for math and reading, and students have shown greater competency with technological tools. When teachers display confidence with technology, the results are even better.

In classes where teachers received comprehensive training in how to use technology, the students' standardized reading test scores increased an average of 11.5 points and the math scores were 4.47 points higher.

"We're always interviewing teachers to make sure we have a comprehensive approach and that what we're doing makes sense," Howery says. "We're not just putting in technology for technology's sake. Our mission is to have better teacher and student performance."

Araya says Desert Sands is on the cutting edge not just because the district has spiffy projectors and a killer network. Rather, it's ahead of the curve because of attributes that have nothing to do with technology: vision, conviction, and strategic thinking. "You have to start with a master plan of where your entire district should be several years from now," Araya says.

This may sound like a daunting endeavor, especially for the many districts that are short on financial and staff resources. But Araya maintains that having an ambitious strategy is the only way to bring all components of a technology plan together. He says, "Once you have a plan in place, it really is amazing how much easier it is to get the support you need to implement all the individual parts."

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer based in St. Louis Park, Minn.

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