By Bob Skolnik
The new leaders of Riverside Elementary School District 96 last week delivered a withering criticism of the district's technology infrastructure and its one-to-one laptop initiative, now in its fifth year in the district.
Problems with computer servers at L.J. Hauser Junior High School have bedeviled the district this year, causing the district's email service to crash at times. But problems go beyond servers.
The district has spent nearly $2 million on equipment from Apple Corporation in the last five years, including a $426,584 bill that came as a shock to school board members this summer.
After delaying payment for a month, the school board approved paying the bill, which included $197,935 for the purchase of 210 new MacBook Air computers for this year's fifth-graders.
"I don't think the challenges are just the equipment that we have," said Zack Zayed, the district's new director of finance and operations. "I do believe that we have personnel issues, too. I think the challenge we're facing is not just the devices. I also believe we have inventory challenges that I can't grab a-hold of. I think we have devices that are not even being used."
Speaking to members of the school board at their meeting on Sept. 17, Zayed was also critical of the implementation of the one-to-one laptop program, which provides a laptop computer to every fifth- through eighth-grader in the district.
"We're in the fifth year of a laptop program and we're not even utilizing what we should," Zayed told the school board. "EBooks aren't even on the computers. We should be way ahead of where we are at now. I still feel like we're at year one. I've seen schools that jumped further than we did in less than five years."
District 96 students use Apple MacBook computers, iPads and iPods. Despite the multitude of devices, teachers and students often have problems connecting to the Internet.
Director of Academic Excellence Brian Ganan, who was hired in May, offered an example.
"I went to a school to meet with a teacher," Ganan said. "She has done some incredible work in [her] area [of expertise] and was all set to show me some of the stuff she's done. Couldn't get online. And her comment to me was 'I've been doing this for half an hour, hoping I could show you this stuff, but this happens all the time.'"
The problems affect teaching and learning, Ganan said.
"More often than I would like to admit, plans have shut down," Ganan said. "Things have stopped happening."
Servers at Hauser have been a particular problem, especially after a software update this summer.
"We had some problems upgrading the servers this summer," said Matt Ahlenius, the district's technology systems specialist who has been working 16 hour days to try to patch problems. "The elementaries have not had this issue that I am aware of because we're not using the same type of software out at the elementaries."
The servers that run the email program have been a particular problem.
"This server is on the newest system that we have," Ahlenius said. "It was purchased a couple years ago. Apple discontinued their server line a couple of years ago as well so it's not like we can just buy a brand new box and throw it over there. Anything that we would purchase at this point in time from Apple to keep this mail server running would be used equipment so what we need to do is really evaluate our next best course of action for the mail server."
Ahlenius said that he made a lot of recommendations that weren't listened to.
Wi-Fi was also been a problem, but that may be resolved.
"Unfortunately we did not have a lot of time to test some of this stuff over the summer with everything that was going on," Ahlenius said. "It looked like the right way to do it and it failed. A new system has been put in place and has been tested and the Wi-Fi is holding up."
Zayed wondered what kind of technology infrastructure planning the district had done in the past.
"I don't know if during the construction the district dealt with a technology consultant as far as the infrastructure that was put into the schools," Zayed said. "Do we even have the capacity to handle what we're going to focus on in curriculum?"
District 96 Director of Technology Vern Bettis, who was not at last week's school board meeting, told the Landmark that the district worked through its architectural firm, Concept 3.
In response to questions about a variety of questions regarding the problems with the email servers, the district's computer purchases and which devices are being used and who uses them, Bettis responded simply with, "No comment."
Superintendent Bhavna Sharma Lewis said that the district doesn't have a handle of its technological issues.
"I don't know if there was ever a clear thoughtful vision and plan to say, 'Here's the servers we're going to use and why,'" Sharma-Lewis said. "I think they were purchased because we have Apple products; we buy Apple servers. … We don't have a system right now that documents what are the problems, how are they being addressed, who's fixing them, how long have they been down. We don't have that. That hasn't existed for years. I think it's been set up and never utilized."
Sharma-Lewis would like to hire a consulting firm to do an assessment of the district's technological needs.
At the meeting a representative of Client First Consulting Group, the firm that handles technology for the village of Riverside, made a presentation to the board.
Some board members said that while an assessment is a good idea, immediate help is needed and someone should be brought in quickly to help Ahlenius on a short-term basis.
"I think there needs to be a short-term action plan to address those servers," said board member David Kodama.