Arkansas has an abundance of natural resources and economic success stories. It’s the home of the Crater of Diamonds State Park, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt Transport Services, The Rockefeller Foundation and Wal-Mart.
Unfortunately, some parts of the state don’t share in that general prosperity. The Arkansas Delta has experienced poverty rates in excess of 40 percent for several decades, and administrators and teachers in the West Memphis School District are sensitive to the strains poverty puts on the district. Because of its high poverty rate, the district receives additional funds — both state and federal — beyond that of the foundational funding received by the majority of the campuses.
The additional funding of about $3,000 per qualifying student proves very helpful, but the district does not receive those funds for all campuses. Because of certain funding restrictions, even some federally funded schools have no remaining budget for technology. Replacing staff equipment only during a funding windfall leads to inconsistent offerings, creating problems with use, training and support. And while the district may receive additional funds, their restricted use, along with some campuses being ineligible, creates a further imbalance. Given those scenarios, an IT equipment cycle refresh for staff users can prove difficult to implement.
Districts in similar circumstances may want to consider these best practices as a way to overcome funding issues and higher local poverty rates.
When West Memphis School District upgraded client devices, it went with Windows-based HP notebooks for the teachers and HP Chromebooks for the students. Most people have worked with Windows in the past, so it seemed reasonable that rolling out 575 Windows machines across 12 locations would require the least amount of training. The 3,300 Chromebooks boot up and connect to the network easily, making deployment and support easier for a small staff of six.
Several years ago, there were barely 30 people in the school district with email accounts and maybe 50 computers districtwide. The most recent upgrade with the HP notebooks and Chromebooks represents a major leap forward. The district has taken a “grow slow” approach, especially with the Chromebooks. The Chromebooks were purchased mainly in response to statewide requirements for standardized testing, which led to local online testing. IT then rolled out the Chromebooks in the classrooms; in the coming years, one-to-one computing that allows students to take Chromebooks home should be deployed.
Because the school district has a small IT staff, when it came time to deploy the notebooks, it needed a company that could do as much of the initial setup and imaging work up front as possible. In addition, districts can use federal funds for those types of contracted services.
Along with student assessments, the Arkansas Department of Education requires teachers to submit grades online. The state runs a student management system and also provides a restricted network and Internet connection on which teachers and administrators can access the SMS; however, teachers can’t enter grades outside of that network without a VPN client on their device. VPN setup or support of personal devices does not fall within the scope of the IT department’s services. But the district is willing to set up a VPN on the devices it supports so teachers have more flexibility and to better serve students.
Plan for the future, especially a migration to Windows 10. One of the great benefits of going with Microsoft machines for the staff was that they integrate well with Microsoft’s System Center Configuration Manager. For larger enterprise deployments across multiple facilities, there’s nothing as cost-effective or stable as SCCM for deploying software upgrades and patches. The district plans to use SCCM over the next several months to get the teachers upgraded to Windows 10.
Having access to HP Financing was a must for the district so that IT could provide equipment of a consistent model and function for all district staff. This year, E-Rate Category 2 funding will help with wireless infrastructure upgrades, and the district must budget for its local portion. Financing with HP over three years allowed it to distribute costs evenly, making it possible to use local funds that are available to all campuses. The district also is becoming more creative with funding. For example, instead of using federal funds to pay for textbooks, schools buy less expensive digital textbooks and develop their own content for certain subjects. The district then uses federal money to pay for student devices, an approved district use.
By making it easy for the IT staff, selecting strong partners, leveraging enterprise tools such as SCCM and understanding that West Memphis School District has to grow slow with technology, IT personnel managed to put productivity tools into the hands of teachers and students at the same time as upgrading the wireless network. In the months and years ahead, the district plans to deploy more collaborative and project-based learning environments. West Memphis is only beginning to see what’s possible with educational technology.