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Creating Collaboration

These forwardthinking districts are making their vendors work together

After two on-campus shootings within two weeks in 2001, it was quite clear that Grossmont Union School District near San Diego had to dramatically improve its security infrastructure. As the high school district vetted its options, it also received a major grant to connect all its schools with Cisco System's fiber optic IP infrastructure.

Assistant Superintendent Warren Williams, who handles information and technology services, began to consider whether the high-speed network could become part of the security solution.

"We had a need, and Cisco had the network equipment and Sony had a camera that would fit on top of the network," Williams says.

But neither Cisco nor Sony had an out-of-the-box solution that allowed their products to work together to create the kind of video monitoring that Williams had in mind.

"We got the three of us together and said, 'Here's how we might mitigate those kind of events in the future.' "

What evolved over the next several years was a new K-12 product for Cisco and Sony, and a state-of-the-art video monitoring system on the 11 Grossmont campuses.

The teamwork, meetings and countless conference calls between the district, Sony and Cisco are part of a nascent trend among the most forward-thinking districts that goes several steps beyond vendor partnerships and creates a model best described as vendor collaboration.

"Administrative folks in schools need to rethink the whole concept of educational partnerships from a school district point of view," Williams says. "Partnership usually means or implies, 'Give me what you've got at the lowest price point possible.' Well, if every vendor did that, they'd all be broke, and there'd be no partners left to have."

Instead, Williams pushes for an environment where the district collaborates with partners, getting vendors to work together to create a product precisely suited to his district's needs.

"Instead of just taking something off the shelf, we look at what can be engineered to put on the shelf," he says.

This kind of deep collaboration has many and lasting benefits for all parties involved. By positioning itself as a guinea pig of sorts, and putting up with all the implications of new product development, Grossmont got a system that was a precise fit for its security needs, and offered many ancillary benefits. The vendors got a chance to create a new product--Sony calls it its "e-Surveillance System" and now offers the product nationally.

Competitors as Teammates

If you take William's feat in getting Cisco and Sony to cooperate in the creation of a new security system, multiply times 10, you'll have a good sense of what George Araya, technology administrator, has accomplished at Desert Sands (Calif.) Unified School District.

While vendor collaboration surely isn't new to business, it's somewhat unique among school districts. And,

"it's safe to say no one does it better than Desert Sands," says Bill Robinson, a regional director of the California Technology Assistance Program, which provides technology training and grant assistance to California schools.

For the last two years, Araya has employed vision and charisma, and the lure of sizeable spending, to get even hard-core competitors like Sony, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Anixter and

Digital Networks, to literally gather at the same table every few months to discuss how they can work together to keep the district at the leading edge of education technology.

"I invite them all to come, and I share what we plan to do and how we expect everyone to work together on this new technology," says Araya, director of educational technology and information services at Desert Sands. After a while, "They know each other, they know how our district works, and they can present ideas as a package."

"Instead of just taking something off the shelf, we look at what can be engineered to put on the shelf,"
-Warren Williams, Grossmont Union School District

Araya's accomplishments in his 26-school, 26,000-student district are substantial.

The district is midway through a $500 million building and renovation program. By 2010, Desert Sands expects to educate up to 40,000 students in 35 schools. To keep pace with growth the district will build a new school each year through 2010 and refurbish every other school during the same period. Desert Sands has partnered with Time-Warner Cable to build a gigabit fiber optic infrastructure connecting each school to the district office. By 2010, the district plans for every desktop to have gigabit connection capability. (Araya has asked Cisco to sell the district a 10-gigabit switch for the price of a 1GIG switch, making the district one of the first in the country to have a 10GIG network. The verdict is not yet in on that request.)

Video conferencing is also available at each school and Araya recently invested $400,000 in Sony network projectors.

From a vendor perspective, collaboration meetings that might be viewed as a strain on a salesperson's schedule actually lead to saved time as technology is installed in a school.

"What you typically run into [in schools] are projects are delayed, or when they're implemented they're not as smooth because each vendor has come in and done their piece and walked away," says Felicia Serranti, major account manager for Cisco Systems who works with Desert Sands.

With the vendor collaboration model, "The solution we put together is a combination of our products.

We understand the implementation schedule better, and we're held accountable to the customer and the other vendors," she says.

To keep the vendors from trying to cannibalize each other's portion of the account, Araya establishes which pieces he'll purchase from each company, and doesn't entertain sales pitches outside this framework. He standardizes on a technology to be implemented across the district, then invites the vendors to the table.

"He makes the commitment to us that we're going to get the business, but sets a limit," says Theresa Hadler, account manager for Digital Networks Group, which handles the streaming video and video on demand applications at Desert Sands. "He gives us the option, 'Get on board, or don't.' "

In exchange for this deep collaboration, and the restraints he imposes on selling, Araya offers his district as a showcase account for the technology vendors. In February he held an open house where all the tech vendors invited their potential customers to Desert Sands to get a peek at a 'best practices' implementation of their technology. He allows them to freely use Desert Sands in their marketing materials and public relations pitches. Araya has even made presentations during seminars that Digital Networks has held for its potential customers.

"They use us as a marketing entity," Araya says. "But that helps us; if they're willing to showcase us it means they have the best invested in us."

It's the Students, Silly

Getting vendors to the same table and taming their competitive natures is a fine aim, but it's a small piece of the puzzle of using technology to improve student achievement. At Lemon Grove (Calif.) School District, an elementary district with 4,600 students, the district's primary mission of improving student achievement via technology is always the first item on the agenda when vendors get together.

"We kept our focus and shared that focus with every person we did business with," says Darryl LaGace, director of information systems at Lemon Grove. "We asked, 'How can you help us meet our needs?' By getting them more involved with the culture of your business they have a stake in what the goals are within the district."

"We shared our focus with every person we did business with. We asked, 'How can you help us meet our needs?' "
-Darryl LaGace,Lemon Grove School District

That commitment to improving student achievement resulted in an unusual technology solution that involved collaboration between a host of technology vendors, including Microsoft, Wyse Technology, Cox Communications and Citrix Systems. Lemon Grove now has a 1:2 computing ratio in its classrooms, with Wyse's thin-client machines running Citrix and Microsoft applications.

And now, more than 15 percent of the district's students in grades 3-8 have the same technology installed at home, with a high-speed cable modem connection to the district. (Students who perform below a certain level on reading and math tests receive the equipment for free, others pay about $29 per month to rent the hardware and pay for the high-speed connection.)

"We had been working in isolation with each of these partners, and they each understood our mission, but we realized we had to bring them together," LaGace says.

The results? Three of the four Title 1 schools in Lemon Grove were declared "High Achieving Title 1 Schools" by the state of California in a year that only 15 out of 590 schools in San Diego County received the recognition.

Rebecca Sausner is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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