By Richard Valerga
NOTE: Richard Valerga currently serves as the CIO for Memphis City Schools. His career has taken him to New Orleans, where he was one of the key players in rebuilding both the schools and the infrastructure from the ground up following Hurricane Katrina; to Saint Paul, Minn., where he was director of information technology of Saint Paul Public Schools and generated annual savings and grants of $4.9 million; to Memphis City Schools in Memphis, Tenn., where he was recruited to provide leadership during the consolidation with Shelby County Schools.
This column is the first in a monthly series that will discuss the steps Memphis City and Shelby County Schools are taking as they move to establish a unified school system.
President Barack Obama will always have a special place in the heart of the Memphis City Schools (MCS).
In 2008, when he made history by becoming the first African American president, MCS students and staff wanted to witness that history and watch his inauguration. Even though every local news station and just about every national station carried the event live, not every school or department within MCS could watch it because cable access within the district was limited. Schools and staff members without TV or cable access turned to the Internet to stream the inauguration live. Unfortunately, when the district’s aging local area networks were met with this overwhelming demand, the Internet connection was quickly maxed out. Frustrated staff members watched the event stream and buffer at a snail’s pace.
The irony of this was not lost on the district’s IT department. President Obama was widely known as one of the most tech-savvy Presidents to ever reside in the White House. His campaign relied heavily on technology to communicate his message for change. He used social media to stay in touch with his followers throughout the election season. And on President Obama’s inauguration day, MCS’s technology was not even able to share it with district staff on television.
Nearly three years later, technology is vastly different at Memphis City Schools. A significant upgrade occurred gradually over the last two years and was put on the fast track in the last six months, due to additional broadcasting demands as a result of the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, the driving force of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grant.
The significant upgrades to both the Local Area Networks (LAN) and the Wide Area Network (WAN) have provided tremendous efficiency and exciting new capabilities. “Memphis City Schools no longer follows in the area of technology, we lead,” says deputy superintendent Hitesh Haria. “We can now support converged network services, which enables efficient transport of Voice, Data and Video communication. Over 14,000 telephones, 40,000 plus computers and other devices connect to our network daily, transferring considerable gigabytes of data with ease. This simply wasn’t possible as little as a year ago.”
Another feature the new network enables is the ability to provide multicast technology, or a one-to-many transfer of complex communication like video and audio. By utilizing the new network to multicast a video presentation, thousands of MCS staff members and students can now view a live event simultaneously without impacting network performance.
According to CIO Richard Valerga, this technology has already paid for itself. “Multicast technology enables us to save tens of thousands of dollars by holding webcasts rather than holding meetings. We can conduct professional development via live video presentation and store it on our portal for later use rather than bringing staff in over and over again. We also have the ability to take questions from the audience right during the webcast so we can immediately understand our staff’s take on a new initiative. We can even broadcast urgent district news directly from the superintendent to the staff at a moment’s notice.”
But the real test for the new network came toward the end of the school year. President Barack Obama was once again using technology to inspire the country. In the spring of 2011, he urged schools across the country to submit a video telling the country why they deserved to have him as their 2011 Race to the Top Commencement Speaker. Thousands of schools applied. The list was narrowed to six, then three, then one. Booker T. Washington High School (BTW), a Memphis City School, had been chosen! The eyes of the entire nation would be on Memphis.
The Office of Information Technology knew that every student and staff member would want to see the commencement address. The first African American president was going to speak to Memphis’ first all African American high school. This was the man who said, “Yes, we can!” and the students and staff believed that they could. Booker T. Washington’s graduation rate had improved more than 20 percent in one school year. The dropout rate across the district was the lowest it had ever been. The President’s speech could inspire MCS students to achieve even more amazing things. If only they could hear it.
“The first thing the network operations team did was test the capabilities of the multicast network to ensure it could handle a district-wide live stream of the event,” says Eric Saunders, network and telecommunications manager. “The network exceeded expectations and the event was a ‘go.’ Throughout the morning, we proved that it was possible to multicast a live event across the district with little or no impact to network performance. Students and staff across the district had the opportunity to simultaneously watch the commencement ceremony live from their PCs and Macintosh computers without having to leave their classrooms or offices. It was such a difference from a few years ago.”
Several members of the media even went to the schools to watch the commencement address with the students. The Commercial Appeal sat with Vance Middle School students as they watched President Obama. "I was proud," said 12-year-old Roneika Harris after Obama finished speaking. "It meant a lot to me. I never thought I would see (Obama) anywhere but CNN."
Thanks to the outstanding teamwork at Memphis City Schools, Roneika got to see the nation’s president in her very own hometown.