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Mining Up

Problem: When officials at Marion County Public Schools in Ocala, Fla., eyed the Continuous Improvem

Problem: When officials at Marion County Public Schools in Ocala, Fla., eyed the Continuous Improvement Model, a research-based, multi-step approach to raise performance among its 45,000 students, they quickly recognized the district's technology infrastructure wasn't up to snuff. Each school kept its own data so the district essentially owned 47 silos of data. If the school board wanted to know, say, how many fifth-graders were reading at level, officials would have to go to each school, perform a "sneaker net" and manually compare the results.

When Barrington Williamson applied for the CTO/CIO position, the IT department staff couldn't say how many calls it received or even name its top technology challenges.

"I was hired to move the district into the 21st century. That's not an insult--things had just grown too quickly to organize them," he says.

Solution: In the corporate world, CIM would be known as total quality management, so it stands to reason Williamson relied on his IT business background to create a more business-like system in the public sector. When he came on board in August 2003, purchasing as the district knew it ground to a halt. Instead, he began spending every dollar of the $25 million the school board unanimously voted to allot him through 2008 to build a technology accountability system. In other words, the IT department became a hub, with each school as a spoke of a wheel connected to it and each other.

Williamson began reeling in individual applications scattered through the district to replace them with off-the-shelf, centralized turnkey solutions like Pearson Digital Learning's SASIxp/Concert that unifies student information, instruction, assessment and reporting in one spot. "The idea is to avoid spending a year developing an application. We don't have that luxury of time," Williamson points out.

The district recently bought 3,350 workstations for every teacher, guidance counselor and principal so all staff could upgrade their outdated Windows 95 and 98 software. It spent $2.5 million rewiring all the middle schools; in 2006 it will spend $3.5 million rewiring the 27 elementary schools. And the district moved from thick to thin client machines.

Every decision supports the steps of the plan:

Plan the district's long-term instructional calendar to work with the current student performance data

Deliver instructional lessons in the classroom

Provide additional tutorials where needed to engage a student in technology

Check the assessment, and monitor and maintain the educational focus.

A Bright Future

Thanks to a consolidated infrastructure, Marion County's IT department now delivers the appropriate technology to support all four areas. "When you don't have to spend time working on ... networks or installing applications, you have time to focus on the instructional content delivery," Williamson says.

But the benefits are quantifiable, too. According to his calculations, the IT governance model will save the district $8 million on hardware, software and labor over the next five years. And as he continues to fine-tune the ingredients, the ultimate goal will mean staff can drill down into data warehouses to discover answers to today's elusive questions, such as which personality types learn most rapidly on certain lesson angles. It will resemble the same powerful knowledge retail marketers scramble to grab to improve their products' positions with the public.

Williamson says, "The idea is to get our folks to think outside the box. And not just focus on a product, which in this case is a software application, but about the end product, which is a student learning at a high performance achievement rate."

Julie Sturgeon is a contributing editor.