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HCS: Rising to the Tech Challenge in Uncertain Times

October 26, 2020
By Ian Thompson, C.R.E.W.

HCS Tech Team Members

HCS - Hoover City Schools (HCS) Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Bryan Phillips has spent much of his almost 15 years with HCS planning for the future.

That planning was front and center in March when COVID-19 meant all schooling became virtual and, from the outside at least, it looked as though HCS barely missed a beat.

“I’d like to think that we planned and planned, not always knowing exactly what for,” Phillips said. “But we were in the right spot to move forward virtually when it became obvious that that was what was needed.”

Phillips leads a team of 25 based at the Blue Ridge Gym adjacent to Shades Mountain Elementary School, in a repurposed building. They were formerly located in the old Berry High School.

“We provide the technological tools for teachers to do their jobs, and then we like to get out of their way.”

It’s not that simple, however, as ongoing professional development; additional training; troubleshooting for teachers, parents, and students; repairs; distribution of devices; evaluating software; the list goes on, and all are integral to the success of his department — and the entire school system.

A former teacher himself, he also has a 15-year-old in HCS, so he sees the educational delivery process from multiple perspectives.

As noted on its website: “Hoover City Schools uses instructional technology as one of many ways to enhance the district's mission of preparing and inspiring all students for lifelong success by teaching the skills, knowledge, and behaviors students will need as responsible global citizens. Excellence in education requires that technology is seamlessly integrated throughout instruction. To further hone 21st-century skills, HCS offers students 24/7 access to their learning through the “Engaged Learning Initiative” (ELI). The individual use of technology empowers students to maximize their full potential — preparing them for successful futures.”

Teachers leading the way

Jamie Nutter is one of four Technology Integration Coaches for the HCS Technology Department, working with Green Valley, Gwin, and Rocky Ridge elementary schools.

Previously a teacher in a different school system, she has three children enrolled in HCS.

“I support our administration (chiefly school principals), teachers, and students through the integration of technology.”

Nutter's role has taken on a whole new meaning with all students from March to May receiving their class instruction virtually, with a significant percentage of students still doing so this school year — be it fully or partially.

“Our common platform is Google Classroom. We’ve had this in place for a number of years, but it is now required that all teachers use it. There might be outlines for the week ahead, a rubric for a problem to be solved, etc.”

Thus all students must be versed in how to access and use the platform, with access at times a challenge.

“WiFi in the home is a key challenge that we face. Filter blocks too. Troubleshooting devices as well.”

HCS does provide free internet access via hotspots on strategically located school buses across the district, with all grades 3-12 receiving a Chromebook.

Educational research generally indicates that K-2 students learn better through hands-on, collaborative, in-person instruction.  However, with COVID-19 upending that for many households, HCS is in the process of securing Chromebooks for all students in those lower grade levels.  Until those devices arrive, HCS tech team members work diligently with K-2 families to ensure digital equity. 

All told, Phillips’ team is responsible for more than 14,000 Chromebooks for students, plus an additional 1,400 Chromebooks for teachers and staff.

Naturally, there will be issues, as Phillips likened it to keeping a small city running daily, but at locations spread across a wide area.

“Taking into account personal devices, we average 25,000 devices in use on a daily basis. As such, our network is second only to UAB in [the Birmingham metropolitan] area.”