GFPS discusses progress, needs in technology

The Great Falls Public Schools board approved a technology strategic plan and during their Nov. 28 meeting, Tom Herring reviewed their progress over the 2021-2022 school year.

Herring is the district’s IT director.

He told the board that the district implemented the new language arts curriculum over the last school year and that included online components.

For kindergarten through fifth grade, the curriculum includes online tools for teachers. The sixth grade curriculum can be fully online for students and for 7-12th grades, there are videos, tests and event blasts online, Herring told the board.

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The district also implemented a dual credit cybersecurity program over the last school year as a result of the defense contractors who had been in town preparing for the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile system that will replace the existing Minuteman III ICBM.

Herring told the board that when those defense contracts were in town, GFPS officials asked what they could do to prepare students. One of their responses was cybersecurity, Herring said.

The program now has eight students enrolled.

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GFPS added an eSports program and installed six gaming computers. Last school year, 23 students competed in three different tournaments. Though none made the playoffs, Herring said that the program has grown to 35 enrolled students this year.

It’s a competitive gaming system built on a team environment, Herring said, and it’s “gaining speed.”

With the help of a GFPS occupational therapist, the district is also creating an assistive technology program.

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Herring said they’ve formed a team and have been conducting software trials. They’ve purchased equipment for student use and are creating professional development for teachers requesting use of the software. He said they’ve developed a manual for the program.

“We are really kind of leaders when it comes to using technology” to help student comprehension, like using text to speech, Herring said.

The district replaced 3,000 Chromebooks district wide that were out of support, and converted charging carts for that upgrade.

Herring said they added 1,100 Chromebooks per school requests, as well as 1,800 Chromebooks for middle and high schools.

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The IT department replaced or added 175 laptops and replaced 100 desktops for student and staff use, as well as replaced or added 31 projectors, 35 printers and 74 document cameras.

Herring said they’ve implemented frontline medical documentation software for better HIPAA compliance.

Last school year, the district implemented the Blackboard Reach and Mobile App for parents to get alerts on attendance or low lunch balance or other such information, Herring said.

PowerSchool electronic registration was implemented for kindergarten, moving that process online.

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GFPS received federal funds to cover 80 percent of a $2.8 million project to implement the district’s own fiber optic network. Herring said the installation was completed and they were in the process of testing it and preparing to move to that network in the next month or two.

Herring said that will give the district more control over their network and the ability to increase bandwidth if needed without increasing costs.

They rewired the Paris Gibson campus to add additional network switches and wireless access points and have also added additional wireless access points at Meadow Lark Elementary.

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The district is also installing a video surveillance system to improve school security under a federal grant program.

Herring told the board that they’ve developed a prototype of a digital classroom remote learning mobile cart and are looking at what would be needed to connect students remotely if students had extended leave for medical or other reasons.

Herring said they’re getting feedback from faculty and principals on the remote learning cart.

Over the last school year, the district added Chromebooks for kindergarten and first grade in a shared model.

They maintained a 1:1 ratio of Chromebooks for students in the second through sixth grade.

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The district added 1,800 Chromebooks for high school to achieve a 1:1 ratio per student, Herring said.

Chromebook is controlled by Google, and the company used to support them for six years, but the latest ones are supposed to be supported for seven years, Herring said. They’re hoping to get that life expectancy out of the Chromebooks, he said.

The district is in good shape through June 2026 when they’ll need a major Chromebook replacement, Herring said, and they’ll probably have to spread that replacement over a few years.

Chromebooks are fine for all grade levels and their lower price point made them the best option for the district, Herring told the school board.

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The IT department implemented an incident management plan for evaluating cyber incidents and appropriate responses, such as the ransomware attack two years ago, which spurred the district to create such a plan.

Security and privacy continue to be a focus for the department, he said.

That includes annual staff training, monthly tips and random phishing tests.

The district brought in an external security organization to conduct an assessment of their IT security.

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Herring said the first was in 2016 with a score of 8.5 out of 10; in 2020 it went down to 6.5 and in 2022 it was down to 4.

Herring said the lower the score, the better.

There’s always going to be challenges, Herring said, “but we’re making good progress.”

The consultant also conducted a physical vulnerability assessment and GFPS scored a 3, which Herring said was a “very good score” and that they’re making progress keeping buildings safe and secure.

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Herring said that the district set aside $3 million in one-time ESSER funds to cover many of the purchases made over the last year but that they’ll have challenges addressing future needs.

ESSER funds are the one-time federal COVID relief funds for education.

The current GFPS technology levy is $225,000 annually, which has been the same since 2003, he said.

Herring said his department is proposing to increase that to a $1.6 million technology levy and hopes the budget committee will consider it. He told the board that in order to maintain technology resources, that’s his estimate of the levy amount needed.

At the current levy amount, Herring said they have problems trying to keep up with what they have and replacing technology as needed.

“I’m just so embarrassed” at tech levy level, Gordon Johnson, GFPS board chair said.