Strong leaders, strong network help San Antonio ISD shine

Despite the massive shift to remote learning, Ken Thompson and his technology support staff have kept the Independent School District on track on a number of key projects
Kenneth J. Thompson is chief information technology officer for San Antonio ISD.
Ken Thompson, Chief Information Technology Officer, San Antonio Independent School District

After spending a year at San Antonio Independent School District getting acclimated to his role as Chief Information Technology Officer, Ken Thompson returned home to his family in Baltimore. They were packing up the truck, ready to make the move to Texas official, when his phone rang.

“I’ll never forget that day,” he said. “The superintendent called and said, Ken, we’ve got to ramp up.”

That was in March, just before spring break. The superintendent was calling because schools were shutting down because of COVID-19 and Thompson’s team would be taking the lead on yet another transformative technology project. This one, however, was perhaps the most daunting.

Days, nights and weekends, Thompson and his newly expanded help desk worked on procuring 30,000 Chromebooks and 5,000 hotspots, building a new data center, implementing a new learning management system (to go alongside a new student information system), beefing up security and handling a ton of calls.

But as “insane” a task as that was, Thompson says he was fortunate. Fortunate that the San Antonio district had the foresight to start building its tech infrastructure before he got there. Fortunate that he was able to connect with a coalition of open-minded stakeholders. Fortunate that they got outside help. And very fortunate that the wide-area network (WAN) that would connect its schools and deliver super-fast internet was speeding along nicely.

It’s part of the reason why Thompson can smile when he talks about IT at San Antonio ISD because it is in a pretty good place.

“It’s going well. We were truly blessed and fortunate in that we had laid a foundation that allowed us to be successful,” he said. “Am I saying we didn’t have bumps? No. We had the opportunities to excel. I have a truly supportive superintendent. We have a truly supportive board. Are we there? No. I would never tell that lie. We are moving in the right direction.”

Indeed, they are. Thompson’s team recently received a shipment of 30,000 iPads for their youngest students. During this year’s election, voters approved a $1.3 billion bond that will mean a huge technology boost for district schools, including more devices, more infrastructure improvements and tech tools such as whiteboards. Area partners have also pitched in.

All in hopes of closing that final digital divide gap, where a reported one quarter of all San Antonio’s students didn’t have internet earlier this year.

San Antonio’s WAN initiative, helped along by $7 million through the federal E-rate program and additional funding from the state, is going a long way to achieving that goal. It piggybacks on other efforts the school district has launched around technology including the “Lighthouse” to ensure equity.

As for the hotspots they procured, if Thompson has his way, he’s eventually hoping to eliminate them, the same way the district did with its other aging devices before the pandemic struck.

“In Ken Thompson’s opinion, those hot spots are a temporary solution,” he says. “I despise them. The dog eats them. They get run over by a car. You lose them. Most of our hot spots here in San Antonio have a 10 GB limit and after that 10 GB, it toggles down. How do you support that and make sure they’ve got the connectivity that they need?”

Making the connections

The San Antonio district has 50,000 students, 110 school buildings and 7,000 faculty members. When Thompson arrived and was tasked with ramping up IT, he started assessing resources and reorganizing the IT structure, “putting the right people on the bus and getting them in a good seat.”

A year into that work, the pandemic struck, which he says was “a blessing” in some ways because they needed to redesign the infrastructure anyway. They already had been working on a 1:1 device strategy for students and those miles of fiber network. But what hadn’t been accounted for was the sheer volume of traffic they’d be getting when schools shut down. Thompson says they went from about 50,000 students hitting the data center to 150,000, as parents and faculty were getting online. And they were answering a ton of help desk calls.

“You’ve got parents at home, and they were not familiar with the devices,” he says. “The students were probably more proficient than some of the parents were. We had to help them with this new way of learning, this new way of accessing the instructional material, this new way of logging on, this new way of doing business.”

After modeling the behavior they wanted, the roles shifted wildly for the IT and help desk teams. Thompson says they were mandated to rethink the services they delivered and how they controlled their network. So, they put a focus on a few areas:

  • Security. “The bad guys don’t sleep. We have an eight-hour day, but the bad guys don’t.”
  • Cybersecurity training for staff
  • Professional development for staff and parents, too
  • Providing its own “Teletech” center: “Just like telemedicine, if I couldn’t resolve your issue, I made an appointment. I gave you a dedicated hour where we walk you through the issues.”

Some of the volume in calls has tapered off as students have gradually settled in and some have returned to school. Approximately 25% are doing in-person learning. The rest are still remote. All of them have devices.

But when the calls come in – either from staff, administers or parents with questions – there is always that extra bit of care that Thompson and his team deliver.

“I’m making a point to talk to my parents and talk to my board, to talk to my teachers: How’s it going? Is it working? How many clicks is it taking you to get there? How long does it take to load? How is it working for the end user? That’s the most important part in my mind.”

Finishing the job

Thompson’s role became, arguably, the most vital in the district – and one that can be polarizing, even for someone as helpful and humble as this CIO.

“The role of the CIO has shifted across this nation,” he says. “Either you’re a hero or you’re a villain. You’re the cause of issues, or you’re at the table, providing the opportunities to make us successful. We are the foundation of the district right now. Not saying that we are more important than anybody. You’ve still got to have an academic program. You’ve still got to keep the lights on in the building. But just like your body – many parts, many members – we are the artery in the organization right now.

“CIOs across the country are more engaged now than they probably have ever been in their life. If they’re not, they’ve probably got problems.”

What’s helped throughout the past eight months is being able to share his stories and hear ideas from a cross-section of leaders. He says he meets weekly with CIOs across the country to discuss IT matters. And he is also part of a cabinet of leaders at SAISD that has been working together on that cohesive plan.

“I think it made us stronger,” he says. “I have never been closer to my CAO as I am now … to my COO, my superintendent, my chief of human resources.”

That combination of forces, Thompson says, has put SAISD in a position to deliver the most important part of the plan: delivering to students. With all this technology and the incredible investment San Antonio is making in it, where does he see it going?

“I think it has changed the way students and learning will happen in the future forever,” Thompson says. “That’s also true of security, awareness, availability, devices, stewardship, management, all of those pieces. It has kind of changed the way we look at things. I tell the team, I’m wrong two or three times a year, and I’ve used one of them this year. So we’ll see. But I think this has changed instruction for a long time to come … and I think to a better place.”

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