Q&A: Ask the Expert
Tackling Boston’s IT Challenges
Kim A. Rice, the chief information officer for the 57,000-student Boston school system, was formerly the director of strategic planning for information services at the Massachusetts Department of Education, where she was the data architect on the design team for the Massachusetts Virtual Education Space, an online portal of education resources that is now called MassONE. She started her career as a 4th grade teacher in North Andover, Mass. Kevin Bushweller, Education Week’s assistant managing editor for online news and the executive editor of Digital Directions, recently interviewed Rice about the challenges of modernizing technology in an urban district, recruitment and retention of talented technical-staff members, what she likes most about her job, and other topics. Here are edited excerpts from the discussion.
You have said that the biggest problem you faced when you took this job two years ago was the age of the computer hardware in the district. How have you tackled that problem?
We had a fleet, in Boston, of about 16,000 computers, of which 55 percent were over 5 years old. We saw ourselves in crisis. It was not only a productivity problem, but it was a security problem. We looked for refurbished computers that were two to three years old that we could clean up, re-image, and put in our schools. Last year, we were able to replace 1,300 computers, essentially wiping out [machines from the mid- and late 1990s] that were in our labs and libraries. During that time, we also worked with our chief financial officer, our chief operating officer, and the superintendent’s office to ask: How do we structure a plan over five years that really looks at the investment that we are making in technology and create a reasonable life-cycle model that we can all then count on.
Boston built its own student-information system. What are the pros and cons of a home-grown system?
The pro would be you’ve got a system that’s tailored to your own business processes, your own community. It’s built based on the requests and interests of the district. Another pro is that you are not paying annual license fees. The [con] is that you’ve got to continue to maintain, own, and upgrade the system. And that’s a daunting task.
Recruiting and retaining talented technical staff is a challenge for schools across the country, and especially urban schools. What is Boston doing to attract and keep skilled technical workers?
We aren’t doing enough. And one of our challenges is the cost, how expensive some of these folks can be. And the point to which you train them and get them up to speed, they can then go elsewhere and make quite a bit more money. We are trying to work with our local university partners for students that are coming right out of college and recognizing the fact that this is a great first place for them to get their feet wet and work in a development environment or an infrastructure environment. But it is an issue, and we don’t have the answer.
Typically, the IT field has been dominated by men. Is this changing, particularly in K-12 education?
Well, I’d like to think it’s changing. But I do see that it is still a field that is relatively dominated by men. I do have a few colleagues across the country who are females, but they are still few and far between. For younger girls, that’s one of my main areas of interest, really trying to get girls into math and technology and a recognition that they can be successful.
Regarding the use of educational technology, where would you like to see the Boston schools in five years?
Ideally, I’d love to go toward a one-to-one student-to-computer environment. I’d love for everyone to have their own personal space, whether it’s virtual or with an actual device. Our schools are moving in powerful directions in trying to be that community that extends itself to the home. I’d really like to see our technology utilization in five years be such that it’s not thought of as technology as much as it’s thought of as a way to connect to the world and a way to continue learning.
What do you like most about your job?
The thing that I like most about my job would probably be that I’m making a difference in Boston, I’m making a difference in the lives of kids. I had a really hard time leaving the classroom—I taught 4th grade for six years, and on my journeys throughout different careers since then I was not able to get the sense of being that I have now. Working in an environment where we really are trying to improve achievement and close the achievement gap for all students makes me just love what I do.
Vol. 01, Issue Fall 2007, Page 6