School & District Management

In Ga. District, Leaders Put Technology at the Center

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 03, 2006 6 min read

Standing at the rear of an art class in this fast-growing suburb northeast of Atlanta, Nancy L. Roche marvels at a drawing displayed on a digital whiteboard.

A South Forsyth High School student, presenting research on Japanese geishas, taps the board with an ink-free stylus to move from one screen showing her original artwork to another screen displaying text and graphics she has prepared.

Watching her, Ms. Roche recalls how 16 years ago, students in the Forsyth County schools had little interaction with technology. As a parent volunteer in 1990, she was dismayed to learn that neither teachers nor students bothered to boot up the single computer placed in each of 25 classrooms.

Phillip Tomas, an electrician with the Forsyth County, Ga., schools, takes inventory using a "personal digital assistant," or PDA.

“Computers were just sitting there, and I thought it was such a wasted opportunity,” said Ms. Roche, a former programmer for IBM who had three young children in Forsyth County schools at the time. She recruited dozens of similarly minded parents and trained them to run a computer lab at the school.

Now, Ms. Roche, 53, presides over the school board in a district that has become one of the most technologically advanced in the nation, thanks to leadership determined to use technology in every aspect of its business.

Over the past decade, Forsyth County has evolved from a district with a few desktop PCs in every classroom and a simple Web site to one where the superintendent and senior administrators use Blackberry devices, every teacher has a laptop, custodians wield Palm Pilots to track work orders, and school board members conduct nearly all their public business electronically.

Boardroom to Classroom

Leaders like Ms. Roche and Superintendent Paula H. Gault decided technology would benefit their growing district at every level—from running school board meetings more efficiently to providing dynamic, hands-on learning to students in the classroom.

Of the roughly 15,000 school districts nationwide, only a few hundred are using technology as completely and successfully as Forsyth County, said Keith Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, a national organization that works with districts that have made technology a priority.

“The most important thing is that the leaders in Forsyth have articulated a vision which embeds technology in a way to enable everything that the district does,” said Mr. Krueger. “For them, technology is not an isolated department; … it’s part of everything they do.”

All 12,000 computers in the district are part of a network and have high-speed Internet connections. The chief technology officer reports directly to Ms. Gault. And every school has an instructional-technology specialist who works with teachers.

“We’ve incorporated technology into everything we do,” said Ms. Roche, who was elected to the school board six years ago and serves as its chairwoman. “And we are fortunate to have a community that supports what we are doing.”

Voters in the relatively affluent district have faithfully backed bond measures and local sales taxes that have helped school officials pay for their technology. And Forsyth County’s reputation for being tech-savvy is widespread. The district boasts an array of national awards and plays host, almost weekly, to visitors from other districts looking to ramp up their technology use.

‘Right Thing to Do’

Ms. Roche and Superintendent Gault say the district’s technological evolution has been almost as rapid as its growth. With an economy traditionally linked to family-owned chicken farms, Forsyth County began its transformation into outer suburbia as business boomed and population growth exploded in Atlanta, 30 miles away.

The county has been one of the fastest-growing in the nation for a decade; the school district has ballooned from 10,000 students in 1995 to more than 25,000 today. Ms. Roche and Ms. Gault have steered the district through that growth and pushed for investing tens of millions of dollars in technology.

School board Chairwoman Nancy L. Roche helped encourage the district's embrace of technology.

“It’s just the right thing to do from an organizational and educational standpoint,” said Ms. Gault, whose district has a low poverty rate and strong academic achievement. “We’ve made technology a priority, and the community has bought into it.”

The district’s digital conversion began in earnest in 2000, when Ms. Roche, then a newly elected board member, insisted on converting the traditional, paper-heavy meetings into streamlined ones where board members used computers and the Web.

The newly appointed Ms. Gault and her administrators began communicating policies and other information for parents and students through the district’s Web site, while board members used the site to publicize their e-mail addresses and other contact information.

“It just seemed crazy to create all these paper reports for five school board members, when we could have all of this material posted online well in advance of the meeting,” Ms. Roche said.

The district created its own Web-based system for posting agenda items, reports, and other material for board members, who could access the material from laptops or home computers purchased for them. In the board’s meeting room, district officials installed computers with high-speed Internet connections on the dais for each member. Within a few months, the thick, paper-filled binders that had been a staple of the board for decades were gone.

For audience members, the district set up a large screen to display the same material that appeared on board members’ computer screens.

Using eBoard

There was some initial reluctance, according to Ms. Gault, who admitted to her own skepticism. “I kept my board book under my seat for the first couple of months before I finally let it go,” she said.

The board has since adopted a different program—called eBoard—developed by the Georgia School Boards Association. In addition to providing online agendas, reports, and minutes, eBoard allows board members to track how much time they devote to their top goals and priorities.

In a hearing last month, board members used special mapping software to debate how best to redraw the district’s boundary lines for school attendance zones.

“Now none of us could imagine doing business the way we used to,” Ms. Gault said.

Much of the district’s technology program has been designed by Executive Director of Technology Services Bailey Mitchell and his team of specialists. Mr. Mitchell, the district’s technology guru since 1998, reports to Ms. Gault and is part of her Cabinet—a management structure that education technology experts say is crucial.

“It would be inconceivable to think that a major business would have their head of [information technology] buried down under different reporting structures without the ability to influence the CEO, but that’s absolutely the setup of so many school districts,” said Ann Flynn, the director of education technology for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

Mr. Mitchell is overseeing a project now that will produce a digital record for every student. The district also plans to outfit its 280 school buses with Global Positioning System devices that will allow parents to track their children’s whereabouts in the 226-square-mile county by logging on to the district’s Web site.

But the interactive whiteboards—like the one used by art students at South Forsyth High School—represent the district’s most expensive and ambitious technology investment yet. The board agreed unanimously to spend $5.5 million this school year to install the whiteboards, along with ceiling-mounted projectors and sound systems, in every classroom across the district’s 25 schools.

Mr. Mitchell, who has been receiving an onslaught of national attention for the project, said school board leaders deserve much of the credit for making Forsyth County a technology leader.

“For them,” Mr. Mitchell said, “belief in technology is bone deep.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at wallacefoundation.org.

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