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Serena Sacks, CIO of Fulton County Schools, explains how she brought IT together as one cohesive team
Technology is enabling a massive transformation of the education system, but not everyone is going willingly into the digital future. When Serena Sacks left the corporate IT world to join Fulton County Schools as CIO, she had big plans to bring technology to teachers and students in unprecedented new ways. But the changes required a significant cultural and mindset shift for teachers, the IT organization, and for Sacks herself as she learned to navigate fast-moving technology change in the slower-paced education industry.
Sacks was recently honored with the Nonprofit CIO of the Year award from the Georgia CIO Leadership Association. We spoke with her to learn more about how she’s leading the change and the two things that have helped her most in shifting the culture of IT.
The Enterprisers Project (TEP): You recently rolled out 85K mobile devices across Fulton County School district as part of a larger personalized learning program. Can you talk about some of the driving factors behind this push?
Sacks: Technology is a huge component behind the movement toward personalizing learning. And it’s not a project that starts and ends – it’s an ongoing educational transformation aimed at helping teachers teach students in a much more personalized way.
In the past, there was no way one teacher could personalize lessons for 30 kids, in five periods a day. Technology has provided the tools to assess, analyze, and report, giving teachers the ability to see things in a dashboard and assign digital content in different ways to different students. The big driver behind our mobile push was giving teachers the content they need, the way they need it, at the time they need it, like never before.
[ Read our related story for lessons from Tom Miller, another Georgia CIO Leadership Association award winner: Anthem CIO: How agile helped us drive value. ]
TEP: What are some challenges you ran into along the way?
Sacks: When you add 85,000 mobile devices to an environment that’s wireless and that has to be secure, there will obviously be challenges. To complicate matters even more, we enabled each school to choose the best device and operating system based on their instructional goals and plans. We currently have three operating systems, four devices, and 100,000 kids within the firewall – many of whom are very curious and smart.
On the infrastructure side, we replaced the wireless network and added 10,000 access points. We have a brand-new data center that’s very sophisticated in terms of disaster recovery. But some of the bigger challenges are web content filtering – making sure that education material is getting through the firewall and inappropriate content is not – and security to ensure kids aren’t breaking into things, external hackers aren’t getting through, and that student and employee data is safe at all times.
Finally, other challenges are more people-oriented, like change management and culture. Teachers tend to repeat their successes, and some teachers are not tech-savvy or comfortable using new technology. It’s taken a lot of professional development, professional learning, and mindset shifts of the instructional leaders to get teachers to really take advantage of the tools that we’re providing.
TEP: How did this change the culture within IT?
Sacks: When I started four years ago, our classrooms were limited in their tech resources. The technology that was there was often separate from actual learning – i.e. if you finish your assignment early you can go play on the computer in the back of the classroom.
I knew coming into the role that our plan was to enable learning anywhere, any place, anytime, through digital devices. That’s a huge change. Most of my team has been here for many years – even decades – and they were very focused on on-prem email, servers, keeping up our enterprise software system, the student information system, etc. Everything was an internal system.
The first thing I did was say, “We need to stop looking at lights on boxes and start thinking about the teachers and students in classrooms who we have to support.” We had to completely change the mentality and shift the thinking from inward, where we were an isolated IT division, to outward, where we were communicating with the schools, the teachers, and principals, and acting with a customer-service mindset.
We completely recast the help desk – previously just three people supporting 14,000 employees and 100,000 kids – into an IT service desk. We’ve shifted the whole culture of IT to focus on customer satisfaction, process, and service.
TEP: How did you get IT on board with such a big cultural shift?
Sacks: When I started, I saw an opportunity for the IT division to maximize its impact in the classroom. At the time, my team didn’t know about the district’s personalized learning plan. They hadn’t been invited to any of the meetings. I immediately briefed them on everything that the academics division was thinking about. I brought them up to speed then, and now I constantly tell them what is going on in the bigger district.
Another unique challenge: every principal had been allowed to hire one tech person to work in their school. These “school techs,” as they were called, reported directly to the principal and had limited oversight by the IT division. That was a very scary prospect to me coming into the role. So the other thing I did immediately was to bring all of those school techs under the IT division.
That’s been great because it brought a wide variety of skill-sets, attitudes, and cultures to my team. We’ve promoted a lot of them up through the organization, and brought a lot of new blood in as well. We’ve trained them, developed them, nurtured them. Some of them are now our iPad specialists, web specialists, and network specialists.
Both of these efforts – communicating bigger picture goals and bringing IT together as one cohesive team – have gone a long way in helping us to shift the culture of IT.
TEP: What was the culture shift like for you personally?
Sacks: I was at IBM for 10 years, Walt Disney World for five-and-a-half, and a number of other top private sector companies. I learned a tremendous amount from each of those, which I’ve taken into the school districts. But I’ve also learned you can’t force-fit anything. You need to learn what works in each new environment.
When I was in corporate, if I needed to change roles, responsibilities, or shift things around within my budget and within my organization, I just needed to bring that up to my leadership and then work with HR. I did it frequently because in technology things change all the time, and you need to change your skill-sets, people, or your organizational structure to meet the needs of the organization.
But in a school district, which has its own specialized culture nurtured over time, things don’t always change quickly or easily, and sometimes people don’t see why technology needs to change so much. It can be challenging, but it’s also an opportunity to help them understand how the appropriate IT solutions can empower them to do their jobs better to serve students.
From a leadership perspective, this cultural shift has taught me the importance of reading the audience – understanding what works within this environment, what the drivers are, and what’s important. In a school district, it’s the Board of Education that makes many of the decisions. You have to understand their perspective, what they’re looking for, and how to help them achieve their results with the tools that you have.
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