Working Smarter

Preston L. Coppels is director of instructional services for Loudoun County Public Schools in Ashburn, Virginia, 30 minutes northwest of Washington, D.C. With an annual growth rate of 7 to 10 percent, Loudoun is the fastest-growing district in Virginia. Its student population will increase from 47,500 students in 2005–2006 to 50,000 in 2006–2007. The district has built 26 schools in the past 12 years, and plans to build 26 more by 2012.

Q.What stresses does rapid growth put on your technology framework?

A. Every four years every school in the Loudoun district gets a total technology makeover. Next year we’ll do a refresh of 27 schools. You can imagine what that means. That’s going to go well into the millions of dollars in our operating budget. The concern is what would happen if we have a budget shortfall one year and we put off the refresh. Then we would be looking at a domino effect, which would be disastrous in a district like ours where new schools open annually.

Q.Which technological tools do you use to manage growth?

A. The two main tools we use are Microsoft Project in the rollout of the refresh and our help desk to keep statistics on breaks and fixes.

Q.Are there creative ways you put technology to use?

A. I wouldn’t say we’re doing anything creative, per se. When you’re dealing with this kind of growth, it’s a lot of grunt work, allocation of resources, and planning. The grunt work is the actual sitting down with principals as we refresh schools to determine how they plan to use buildings for instruction over the four-year period prior to the next refresh. To do this, we use AutoCAD, which shows floor plans, and ARC Building Utilization, which identifies classroom equipment.

Q.In a perfect world, which technology would be ideal to help manage rapid growth?

A. As we grow, we need to look for different solutions and applications that will cross over into interoperability. For example, every teacher uses a minimum of 11 applications. When someone is hired, we have to put names and logins in 11 places. When someone gets in the personnel database, we want that information populated in payroll, staff development, e-mail accounts, everything. Right now we have 11-stop service and we want one-stop service. We’re looking for applications that can talk to one another.

Q. What’s the biggest factor in your growth management success?

A. It’s the community. It voted in 1997 for a bond initiative to network all classrooms and put computers in every classroom. And we had been trying for years and years to get that in the operating budget, and we just couldn’t do it. Over 85 percent of our students continue their education [past high school]. It’s a very affluent community with high expectations. It doesn’t hurt that AOL has its headquarters here in Loudoun County. The community is very tech-savvy.

I have seen districts do well with fewer resources. It’s a question of where your priorities are. Sometimes districts have to make difficult choices: Do we lower the pupil-teacher ratio or do we put more computers into classrooms?

Q.What would you advise other growing districts?

A. When you see that this growth is coming, I think you have to look for ways to work smarter because that’s really the only way you’re going to ride this out. Two years ago, for example, we created computer images for our schools and had Dell install them at the factory. We also had the BIOS preset. The computers were ready to go once they were installed.

Districts have to commit to getting resources, whether from the tax base, foundations, federal grants, or corporate contributions. Once you make the plunge, you’ve got to be committed to the long haul because the costs are going to be significant.

Sheila Riley is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.