How Charter School Technical Requirements Influence IT Choices

Charter schools face unique technical challenges.

Charter schools enjoy greater flexibility in instructional design, hiring, and daily school operations than many of their traditional public school counterparts. Because they can build unique schools models from the ground up, charter school leaders have brought innovation to the education sector and demonstrated the ability of students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds to achieve academically.

With this additional freedom, however, comes other responsibilities. Because charter schools enjoy more autonomy than their traditional public school counterparts, they must often manage daily operational tasks, usually left to central office staff or third-party providers. It’s not uncommon, for example, to see a charter school teacher serving lunch to her students, managing the school’s Chromebook inventory, or petitioning his school district for additional unique education resources.

While these and other tasks are a necessary part of school programming, they can also divert teachers’ attention from their central role or, worse, lead to burnout. This phenomenon is just as true in the charter school IT space, which an assistant principal or designated teacher often manages. As the point person for the school’s technology programming, this individual confronts numerous challenges that could easily displace critical instructional tasks. From procuring student devices to providing troubleshooting support to teachers, students, and, increasingly, students’ families, running a world-class IT program requires expertise that many charter school teachers and leaders simply don’t possess.

Below, we outline some of those challenges and explain how working with a managed IT firm can help schools alleviate the burden of running a school IT program entirely in-house.

Procuring and setting-up student devices take time and expertise.

As a first step in creating a solid school IT program, charter school leaders need to procure, set up, and distribute student and staff devices to their teachers and students. Easy, right? Well, not so fast. With limited financial resources, dozens of other instructional priorities, and, often, a board eager to promote fiscal responsibility, charter school leaders must often spend hours and hours scouring the internet for the most cost-efficient device options.

With hundreds of other schools across the country scrambling to purchase the same devices, finding a vendor who has a sufficient number of computers at a reasonable price can prove challenging. Just ask any school leader who attempted to purchase student Chromebooks in March or April 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools across the country to shift to remote learning. Procuring the “right” model and number of student devices was already challenging enough without the added challenge of a global supply chain slow-down.

Even if they were lucky to find enough devices to meet their students’ needs, school leaders often waited weeks on end for the computers to arrive. With each day that passed, of course, students without device access at home missed out on valuable instructional time, undermining school leaders’ efforts to ensure the pandemic didn’t result in a widespread learning loss.

But charter school IT is about more than just procuring student devices.

Once a school leader receives their student and staff devices—pandemic or not—they still have to ensure those devices are set up properly and host all of the software necessary for instruction. Ideally, the school should affix each device with a unique tag, create a system for tracking device distribution and return, and ensure a few extra devices remain on-hand in the event a teacher’s or student’s device malfunctions. As simple as each of these tasks may sound, they all require sustained attention, planning, and time, all of which can come at the expense of school leaders’ other pressing priorities.

More broadly, in order to make the most of their school’s technology investments, school leaders have to think about how classroom technology use aligns with and enhances daily classroom instruction. Rather than incidental to instruction or duplicative of more traditional teaching methods, technology should truly add value to the school’s more general academic programming, creating new ways to engage learners and facilitating students’ content mastery. Determining the purpose and scope of the school’s technology investments will, of course, require additional time, resources, and consultation with other school stakeholders. All of them will likely have their own ideas on how best to deploy the school’s technology.

Teachers and school leaders often need rapid troubleshooting support.

Even after taking the time to procure their school’s devices, set up and distribute computers to students and teachers, and develop a coherent school technology program, school leaders must address the technology issues (big and small) that inevitably arise through daily use. Of all the issues discussed so far, troubleshooting school technology issues pose the greatest threat to school leaders’ time. School leaders need to develop a solution quickly if a projector bulb blows out, SMARTboard malfunctions, a student’s Chromebook stops working, or a teacher can’t log in to an online instructional platform.

School technology issues have broader implications than the above descriptions suggest. For instance, if a teacher has built her entire lesson plan around an online instructional platform she wants students to access, an inability to log in to that platform jeopardizes the entire day’s work. With each minute that passes, students miss out on valuable instructional time. As those minutes accumulate over the course of a single school year, hours of teaching time can be lost as a result of routine technology issues.

Similarly, a teacher’s failure to have his technology issue resolved quickly can generate unnecessary stress, anxiety, and frustration, all of which can inadvertently influence student behavior. Unhappy or frustrated teachers can often yield unruly students, who can then disrupt class and further undermine instruction. Therefore, rapidly troubleshooting school technology issues is as much of a school culture issue as it is an operational challenge.

With the right IT support, charter schools can use student data to drive academic decision-making.

Beyond classroom technology, a school’s investments in high-quality student information and data and assessment systems can add tremendous value to school programming, particularly if the two “speak” to one another via an automatic or daily sync.

For instance, by taking the time to source and maintain an effective student information and data and assessment system, school leaders can often create powerful custom reports that place students’ academic and behavioral data into conversation with one another. Suppose a student is struggling in a particular class or subject area. In that case, a school leader or teacher can show the student’s family member data highlighting the link between poor attendance and their subpar academic performance. Identifying these trends early can also allow school leaders to stage interventions that prevent academic or behavioral issues from arising in the first place.

These systems also allow school leaders to monitor trends in student academic performance in real-time and identify specific standards with which students are struggling. Department- or grade-level leaders can use these metrics to establish priorities for their teams and coordinate instruction to address widespread gaps in student understanding. Incorporating regular student data “checks” into teacher practice allows teachers to monitor student data proactively and more effectively target their instruction, positively impacting student achievement.

Charter school IT has become increasingly central to instruction because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each of these charter school IT challenges demonstrates the extent to which school technology, far from an aberration, is becoming an increasingly central part of daily school operations and instruction. As the pandemic demonstrated, many—although not all—traditional instructional methods can be adapted to virtual environments, which can generate efficiencies not possible in the brick-and-mortar school building. Asynchronous learning time, collaborative student projects, videoconferencing, and online instructional platforms are all poised to play an ever-larger role in instruction, even as students return to in-person learning.

As technology use becomes more widespread, however, the potential burden on school administrators also increases. That’s why it often makes sense for school leaders to contract with a third-party managed IT provider with the technical know-how and expertise to oversee the school’s technology programming. By bringing their experience to bear on the school’s technology, managed IT providers not only make more effective use of the school’s technology investments but also give school leaders the space and time to focus on teachers and students. By taking technology programming off school leaders’ plates, managed IT providers help principals and support staff train their sights on supporting instructional programming and student well-being, rather than putting out the latest school technology-related fire.

 At CTS, we help build world-class charter school IT programs.

Our team has worked with more than 60 schools across the U.S. to take their technology programming to the next level. Our team offers a full suite of services to help charter schools use technology to drive student achievement, from managed IT services and project support to student data management and analysis. We work collaboratively with school leaders to create technology solutions that align with each school’s instructional design and complement teacher practice. Contact us today to learn more about our services and how we can help your school accomplish its unique mission.

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