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Jim Ratchford - Tech Learning

Jim Ratchford

Get to know a bit about technology from the CIO of Seattle Public Schools.
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Name: Jim Ratchford

Age: 56

Title: Chief Information Officer, 3 years

District: Seattle Public Schools

Tell us some of your big-picture tech goals for the year.

Our challenges in Seattle are likely similar to K-12 districts across the country. We must address legacy technologies, manage diverse data systems, and prepare for the next generation of technologies. The citizens of Seattle have been very generous and have supported local tax levies that have funded numerous technology capital projects. This support provides us with the means to dream big and solve urgent technology needs across our district.

This year we will retire a VAX mainframe that is 10 years beyond end of life with client/server systems using .Net, SQL Server, and eSIS (Student Information System) technologies. We have deployed a data warehouse to transform academic data into useful performance-management reports. We are also expanding our data-management strategy to include business data that, along with academic data, will guide student- and teacher-support decisions. Lastly, we are building a robust IT infrastructure to improve online-access equitably to all schools in our district.

We are in the process of deploying virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) system, both thin and thick client, resulting in nearly 13,000 high-performance devices in our schools. To complement our VDI project, this summer we will start a network capacity upgrade project to leverage our fiber-optic WAN. This upgrade will increase bandwidth for all schools from 100Mb to 1Gb with some up to 2Gb.

What tech accomplishments are you most proud of?

We have a tremendous team within Seattle Public Schools, across our system, from classrooms, schools, and central office. Collectively, we have worked hard and accomplished much. These three accomplishments are representative of our progress:

  1. Implemented a data center uninterruptable power supply; upgraded computer room air-conditioning equipment; installed earthquake-safe server cabinet iso-plates; and replaced the data center IT cable plant. Together, these initiatives have raised data-center reliability.
  2. Last year, our special education (SPED) department wanted to replace its IEP software. This February we went live with a SaaS-based IEP online tool. The success was less about the technology and more about the positive cross-team collaboration. In partnership with SPED, we worked together to define requirements, evaluate solutions, implement the selected tool, and share accountability all along the way.
  3. In 2008, my customers wanted to replace SAP, our enterprise-resource-planning system. This came just months after implementing human resources, budget, and financial modules. We learned that there were multiple roots causes. Today, we have a working IT governance system with customer and technical staff working together to establish system priorities.

Are you planning to let students BYOD? If so, when?

Many of our students already bring their own devices. To bring value to our students in conjunction with instruction and access to digital materials, we are in the process of trying to figure out what is the best path ahead. Part of the answer lies in how to incorporate these student-owned tools into our instructional practice. Our instructional technologists are working together with our curriculum coaches to come up with answers. While not quite BYOD, we just opened a STEM high school this year. As part of the STEM program, each student was issued a laptop computer for 24/7 use. This program will inform our decisions for other applications of student devices. We also acknowledge that mobility is an important component of student devices. By the end of this year about 25 percent of our schools will have wireless networks within their buildings.

Traditional or online textbooks?

Anyone who has seen a student trudging along with a backpack filled with books knows the importance of solving this issue. Of course, the issue is more complex, for example—which hardware platform, availability of digital content, demands for network bandwidth, increased wireless access, and what changes to instructional practice are needed. We have started to prepare for online materials. Our textbook adoptions require publishers to have digital versions of textbooks. Some teachers are piloting handheld devices that could be used to deliver digital content. And we have started network projects to increase network bandwidth and add wireless networks to our schools.

Can your students/teachers use Facebook, MySpace, or other Web 2.0 tools?

Web 2.0 tools are useful and add value to our schools. CIPA compliance limits our use of these tools—no access for students and limited access for teachers. We are in the process of upgrading our Web content management system. Within this new tool are many Web 2.0 features. This will give us the capability to access collaboration tools within our network and satisfy the growing demand for these services by students and teachers.

Professional development: face to face, online, or blended?

We provide PD using a blended delivery model. Face-to-face remains our primary solution. However, this approach is becoming less and less practical due to increased demand for training and continued budget cuts. We are beginning to use a variety of online options like individualized online training, teleconferences, and webinars. We just signed a one-year service contract with a major provider of webinar services. Initial customer feedback indicates that webinars are a big hit, but we have much to learn on how to fully utilize and benefit from this method of training.

What are some of your guilty pleasures?

I thoroughly enjoy my morning vanilla latte at Starbucks. I’ve never met a cookie I didn’t like. And a fantastic meal with friends and family is a real treat—home-cooked or at a nice restaurant. I like going to the gym at 5:30 am (probably necessary because of my before-stated indulgences). I also take great pleasure singing to the Oldies with my family in the car. Even more fun when my kids can name the song and artist after the first few notes. Life is good… 

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