Coachella Valley district CTO helps kids stay connected 24/7

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Coachella Valley is surrounded by desert and farming communities, not all of which enjoy easy access to the Internet. But that hasn’t stopped the rural California school district’s staff from upgrading Wi-FI broadband connections across the district and providing devices to all students.

Since an iPad pilot was rolled out about three years ago, all of the nearly 20,000 students across 22 schools – from pre-Kindergarten to 12th grade – now use the tablet to enhance their learning.

“We have seen increased student engagement in the classroom,” said Michelle Murphy, executive director of technology services since 2012. “For the first time, we’re seeing full integration across more classrooms. I think [technology is] being used more as, not an afterthought, but as something that is embedded into their day.”

Murphy embodies the characteristics of what the Consortium of School Networking regards as a potential NextGeneration Leader – school tech officials who have gone above and beyond their normal IT responsibilities to promote student achievement. She, along with others profiled by EdScoop, represent the type of leaders CoSN hopes to recognize through a new program being launched at its annual conference in April in Washington, D.C.

It’s even more striking that the rural district pulled off the iPad implementation, despite widespread problems faced by other districts like Los Angeles, about two hours away.

“We did look at lessons learned and try to adjust what we were doing with our deployment,” said Murphy, who used to be a Kindergarten teacher. “Our teachers had the iPads six months prior to students.”

The deployment was challenging at first – it took six months to get the iPads into every child’s hand. But Murphy and her staff also offered around-the-clock professional development for teachers, with online support and training.

The district also took the innovative step of outfitting school buses with Wi-Fi routers so that students, most of whom qualify for free and reduced price lunch, can do their homework while they are on the ride.

“About 40 percent of our homes do not have connectivity, so this way students can be connected to and from school,” said Murphy.

Ten of the 100-bus fleet also have solar panels on top so they drivers can park them out in the community at night so that kids can do their homework using the vehicles as mobile hotspots. The innovation has had some positive side effects.

“Discipline has dropped on the bus because students are engaged, whether for fun or doing homework,” Murphy said. “We’re trying to help the kids as much as possible.”

The IT team at the district has been able to pursue all these cutting-edge endeavors thanks to a $43 million bond to beef up infrastructure. The district has also purchased Apple MacBooks for teachers.

Murphy said technology doesn’t take the place of teachers, but it is imperative for kids to use it in order to succeed in the future.

“I have a four-year-old grandson who has an iPhone, so if he goes to school and doesn’t have that technology available to him, he might be bored,” she said. “I think jobs of the future are going to entail technology. Kids need to learn to be responsible and leave a positive digital footprint.”

Reach the reporter at corinne.lestch@edscoop.com or follow her on Twitter @clestch and @edscoop_news.

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