Forsyth County Schools have earned a reputation for excellence in education and technology. As the seventh-largest district in Georgia, they serve more than 51,000 students representing 124 countries and 52 languages. FCS operates 39 schools, including 22 elementary, ten middle schools, seven high schools, and plans to open three new schools by 2022.
In this article, I interview Tim Fleming, director of technology services, and Curt Godwin, the network operation coordinator at FCS, to gather insights about how they’ve managed technology operations. From project planning, data management, distributed learning, and cybersecurity, the team advances educational opportunities for their teachers and students — all while rapidly growing.
Exceptional Leadership, Open Communication, and Teamwork Create a Culture of Progress
Over the past decade, Forsyth County Schools have achieved remarkable growth of about 50 percent. Opening new schools don’t happen every year. Still, the FCS IT team prepares to accommodate an average of 2,000 additional students per year, which accounts for a large number of students, personnel, and devices to manage with a small team.
Next year, however, FCS will open four new sites. “It’s going to require a lot of coordination with our desktop team and with facilities and various other departments that historically don’t work together daily.”
FCS has been a long time technology leader in the K-12 space, which Godwin attributes in part to leadership’s value on open communications. They hold weekly meetings with the superintendent’s cabinet, participate in a couple of board meetings every month, and attend daily leadership meetings within the IT department. They exercise a proactive approach, seeing and solving problems before they occur. “We get together as a team and discuss things. There’s never a squelching of ideas or comments. We all understand the goal is to serve our students and staff,” says Godwin.
E-Rate Reimbursements, Budgeting and Planning
When planning projects that will use E-Rate funds, districts need to follow the rules and keep aware of funding cycles that define when schools are permitted to purchase and be invoiced. It’s best to keep an eye on local budgets for purchases since districts have to pay for approved services and products upfront.
FCS — a higher socioeconomic district — receives a 40 percent E-Rate reimbursement for eligible purchases. “We like to plan so that when we get the reimbursement, we’re able to look at those funds and plan the next E-rate project. When we get the 40 percent back, we add some to it. Now, we’re using that same E-Rate discount to buy the next group of important infrastructure upgrades, and we continue to do that. It just seems to really work,” Fleming explains.
FCS also consults an outside organization, Funds for Learning, to help with E-Rate funding to ensure all rules are understood and that they don’t incur any processing errors, which could delay payments. “I can tell you an E-Rate consultant is worth every penny, helping you navigate the arcane waters of federal government language,” Godwin stressed. “I like having an outside organization that specializes in this so that they make sure we do the right thing. We really feel responsible that we do not just buy great products and have good investments, but that we use [the funds] the right way.”
Read our recent blog post to learn more about the current state of E-Rate.
Evaluating the Right Solutions
Forsyth County Schools don’t take technology investments lightly. Often, the team works with Lockstep Technology Group to assist with decisions.
“We say [to our consultants] give us the best in breed, give us every single company and model that you think is outstanding. And then, we make sure they have input into our list. Once we establish the list, we do kind of head-to-head competition between all the products; we find out which one is the best at what we need before we even look at the cost. We’re looking at the product: What does it do? Does it all we need to do? We get it down to two or three different products, and we can then talk to the companies about price and see which one is affordable. We always want to find out if we have the right product because if not, it doesn’t matter what it costs,” Fleming says.
Additionally, they bring in the products and conduct a pilot test from anywhere from a month to a year to ensure it meets their needs before committing to a purchase.
Preparing for Remote Learning Before and During the Pandemic
FCS have long been using digital learning to supplement classroom learning. For example, the district eliminated incremental weather days and have used online learning to substitute those days. However, online learning doesn’t come without its challenges.
With many resources offsite, the schools’ traditional bandwidth and high-speed applications that have to be accounted for on-site get shifted out to the home user’s internet connection. FCS understood there might be some students or some staff located either in areas with no internet service, or who many never had to account for high bandwidth applications. For example, using real-time video conferencing is necessary to keep the engagement between students and teachers.
“We knew that would be a challenge. And we have done all that we can by configuring our services accordingly. We’ve worked with our instructional technology department to give Chromebooks or internet hotspots to those who need those devices. Even though we’re a high socioeconomic district, that doesn’t mean that every student has the same opportunities. So, we’ve had to coordinate with them to make sure we have a fair distribution of resources so that learning can continue.”
FCS made it a goal a long ago to assure that IT could continue operations regardless of location; therefore, transitioning over the pandemic was much easier than most would have anticipated. “Because we were prepared for this, about the only thing that we had to do was to get to the office fidelity level.” We knew we were going to be home for a while, so we might need a few more tools at home that we wouldn’t normally have [at the office],” says Godwin.
For efficiency, the FCS IT team also created a video library of brief tutorials to show staff how to use common elements of their technology suite, whether that’s software, hardware, a new application, or a process they’re implementing. “We’ve used videos to instruct our users, and they’ve loved them. They’ve been able to get on board with applications much more rapidly than they otherwise have.”
Addressing Cybersecurity Issues in K-12
FCS knew that security would be one of the significant facets that the team had to address during the pandemic. Initially, there wasn’t enough VPN support to cover all our staff; they had only implemented a VPN for “high-value targets.” However, according to Godwin, every person in a school district becomes a high-value target anywhere that an attacker can gain access. “If attackers are gonna go for it, it’s usually not the high-value ones they’re going to attack first.” FCS has implemented VPN services with the superintendent and board’s support and analytic data services tied to our staff notebooks. “Whether they’re on-site or off, we protect them and can push patches out to their machines.” Working with Palo Alto and Lockstep Technology, FCS brought the best of breed security to its district users.
FCS has been partnering with Lockstep for more than 15 years. They worked on auditing their security practices and policies to align with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). “We’ve been working on that for eight or nine months, and we’re making huge gains and finding holes that we didn’t know existed,” says Fleming. “We’re able to find those vulnerabilities and plug them. It’s really been amazing, the work that we’ve done with Lockstep, and I’m blown away as far as we’ve come.”
Godwin also warns, “Security has to be part of your daily operations. It has to be part of your workflow and part of your culture. Because if it isn’t, the slightest slip-up can cost a lot of time, energy, frustration, money, and embarrassment.”
Cybersecurity training and awareness for staff and students, such as Digital Citizenship Programs, help instruct how to identify potential threats. “We’ve been working with our staff and students to become human firewalls,” Fleming said. “We’re trying to teach them how to catch things that are abnormal and stop it from getting a foothold and hurting the district.” Godwin also produced a 5-minute video about the most critical factors about cybersecurity. “As good as technology is,” Godwin states, “It’s never as good as human intelligence.”
Leveraging Data to Predict Student Success
One approach that FCS requires is that decisions are made based on data. “Don’t just make decisions because it’s something you think is cool, or something you think is right, you got to have data to back it.”
An exciting project FCS has been working on for a couple of years is its student dashboard. The team looked at all the different data that the school has access to, such as Microsoft, Google, and the student information system. They brought these data sources together into an analytics dashboard that delivers insight into how students perform across the board.
The dashboard highlights data points, such as grades, attendance, and student discipline. Fleming points out, “It’s tough for districts to look at the total picture of a student because there are so many little pieces of the puzzle that live elsewhere. So we were able to bring all that together and see if they’re on track for graduation.”
This year, collaborating with Microsoft, they not only looked at creating a data warehouse and the ability to look at that data but doing predictive analytics where they looked at ten years of student data. “We push the data through machine learning, and we said, ‘look at all the students who graduated. Look at the kids that didn’t graduate and find patterns between the two [groups].’”
Once the team could use machine learning to predict whether students were on the path to graduation, they ran all of their current students through the system. What they came up with was incredible. “We found a model that’s about 96 percent accurate on predicting whether these students are going to graduate or not graduate, and the system lists out things that it saw hurting [the at-risk students].” Counselors, principals, and assistant principals can say, “Here are the things we need to work on, and here are the things that are going right for you that we need to capitalize on.”
Fleming emphasizes that Forsyth County, their board, their directors, and superintendent care about the students immensely. “That’s our heart – to help them be successful. Now, we found the tool that finds kids who really need our help. The data will tell you where you need to work harder – where your holes are. Find the data, pull it together, and find ways to use that data to make differences in the lives of kids.”