A District & County Alliance
In 2005 Sarasota's Superintendent of Schools Dr. Gary Norris and County Administrator Jim Ley lamented some of the issues each saw in his work. Realizing that many of their processes and costs were being replicated, the administrator made a simple suggestion to the superintendent that has changed the way things get done in Sarasota in the area of revamping outdated technology: have both entities supervised by one person so the needs of the county and schools could be addressed at the same time, with shared resources.
Such a unique collaboration is rarely considered. Bob Hanson was named CEO for both the county and school board in April 2006. Hanson's first accomplishment: drafting a partnership allowing the county board and the county's 45 schools access to the same fiber network for Internet sharing, to the tune of a $22 million savings for the school district. That decision put Sarasota County Public Schools' forward-thinking Director of Instructional Technology, Mike Horan, on a mission to help every teacher and student reach their potential in the classroom by using $13 million of the savings toward purchasing Promethean ActivBoards for the district's 3,300 classrooms.
Among other things, the boards-78-inch, fully integrated, interactive electronic whiteboards-give teachers access to the Internet and the ability to create interactive lesson plans while communicating and receiving information from students with handheld devices at their desks. "If students don't see you using basic levels of digital sources, they think you're out of touch," says Horan. "If you're not using it, you're competing against their multimedia use outside of the classroom."
Tech future for Sarasota: "I'm intrigued by low-cost schematic laptops," he says. With colleagues increasingly concerned about the 35-pound backpacks kids lug around school, "we have to move away from paper-driven textbooks," he says. So Horan's next project is investigating technology that would replace bulky books. His hope: a bigger-than-a-phone and smaller-than-a-laptop device used to capture input, access online content in the classroom, and access textbooks and assignments in PDF, searchable format. "I think the development is out there," he says as he names a few in which he's interested. "Products are starting to show up."
A superintendent's support: As one of the highest-performing districts in the state, Sarasota has "an enormous amount of credibility behind it," Horan says. Horan credits Superintendent Norris's vision for helping raise Sarasota's technology profile. "The critical nature of having the superintendent share your passion is the basic difference between success and failure."
Computers and kids: "If you're not embracing technology in the classroom you are ignoring the 'digital native,'" says Horan. With students texting, IM'ing, and accessing online resources , teachers have to use the same tools to make a difference. "It's what drives us. It's what a digital native expects."
Next step in the collaboration: Sarasota's County Board and the School Board of Sarasota are so pleased with their shared fiber resources that they're evaluating ways to centralize the county's servers, allowing for shared maintenance costs of about $25 million. "Normally, district centers might not be willing to share network control with another entity," says Horan. It's taking a change in thinking, he says, but the benefits are vast. "We'd like to see significant [savings] come back to the classroom
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a contributing editor.