Dealing with Rapid Growth

As the technology information officer for Denton Independent School District in Denton, Texas, Ernie Stripling serves 19,000 students in thirty schools, and plans to add 11,000 more students in less than five years. With a budget of about half a million dollars, Stripling works hard to provide students with the best technology the district can afford. School CIO recently found out how he uses innovative solutions to face the challenges of growth.

Q. Can you describe how fast your district is growing?

A. We’re growing at 12 percent plus per year. By 2010, we’re expecting 30,000 students. We’ve built three new elementary schools and one middle school in the last two or three years, and we will be building another high school soon.

Q. Tell me a bit about the technology in your new schools.

A. We just finished a brand new wireless high school, which cost $100 million. But we saved what we would have normally spent on 15 different computer labs by going wireless. Now, every class is a lab. We roll Dell laptop carts into the classrooms, and every device works on the network. There are approximately 70 wireless access points on campus.

Q. What have you done to update older facilities?

A. Back in 2001, on 9/11, our older schools didn’t have cable in every classroom. All the phone lines were completely clogged, and teachers had no idea what was going on. After 9/11, we put in the IP (Internet Protocol) TV system from Cisco, which switches analog into digital signal so you can watch TV on a computer. Now, we have twelve TV channels on any desktop or laptop in the district. It’s a multicast on a one-megabyte stream, 32 frames per second, so it’s real, live video with sound. It’s just like watching TV on a TV.

Q. How does Denton use technology to manage growth?

A. About ten years ago, the school district split the cost of a fiber optic network with the city. When we started building schools outside the city limits, we had to look at other options, so we put in our own fiber optic network. We put in four conduits, bored at seven feet below the ground. Having it that deep keeps our maintenance costs very low, because not a lot of people can dig that deep to put in utilities [so the service isn’t often interrupted]. Everywhere we go outside the city of Denton, we give one of the conduits to the city. In exchange, they give us free right of way to run our conduits down county roads, for future growth. We also did another collaboration with a water municipality. They are traversing the whole region with a water line, and we collaborated with them to put a couple of extra conduits in the ground, one for us, one for them, and one for the county. These collaborative efforts have really saved us a lot of time and money, since each entity doesn’t have to run its own fiber optic cable.

Q. How does technology help teachers adapt to rapidly growing classrooms?

A. One cost-saving measure in our high schools is having a standardized way to set up the classroom. There’s a built-in teacher’s desk, usually in the corner of the room, and we put all the computers, the telephone, and TV in that one location. It helps us do cabling, so that everything goes to one point. This design has been pretty economical.

Q. What do teachers think of the design?

A. They love it. They know that whatever classroom they go to, everything will be the same. If they want to use the overhead projector, it’ll be in the same location. It also helps us to project how much a school is going to cost. In today’s tight economy, it’s a lot easier to know how much a building is going to cost before we go to our voters.

Q. What technological tools do you use to help new students adjust?

A. We use a program for our bilingual students called ELLIS (English Language Learning & Instruction System). It’s a foreign language program with over 200 available dialects. In Denton, we speak over 40 different languages. This program has online videos that teach students how to count money or what to look for when they go to the grocery store. The lessons are all about real-world experience.

Q. Do you have any advice for CIOs facing rapid growth?

A. Schools districts need to consider going paperless. Just like everything else has gone up because of the price of gas, a case of paper that we were paying $3 or $4 for has now gone up to $19. Things that you traditionally put in the student’s backpack should be uploaded, and then teachers should have the student go home and look at those documents online. It’s imperative that school districts think more like big corporations and save money by going electronic.

Lindsay Oishi is a graduate student in Learning Sciences and Technology Design at Stanford University.