Don Ringelestein — West Aurora School District 129

Honing in on end-user experience to ignite a passion for learning in Illinois schools

The shift to greater classroom technology is inevitable and now that it is hitting home in schools across the country, it’s up to school leadership to find ways to adopt and adapt while keeping student success and achievement front and center. Helping to smooth this transition in Aurora, Illinois, at the West Aurora School District 129 is Don Ringelestein, the director of technology for the K-12, 12,600-student district.

With Ringelestein at the helm, the district has restructured its technology department, revamped the network infrastructure necessary to grow and piloted a device program in just a few short years.

The West Aurora School District 129 is home to a growing student population, covering the towns of Aurora, North Aurora, Montgomery, Sugar Grove and Batavia, Illinois, and includes 17 school facilities. At this point Ringelestein oversees a fairly small IT staff for such a large school community.

“I currently have 10 employees,” he shares. “That’s 10 IT employees supporting some 10,000 connected devices and 13,500 users, including teachers and staff.”

Focused on customer service, user experience

Ringelestein finds a balance by hiring the right people. “We have a relentless focus on customer service and end-user satisfaction,” he adds. “In fact, we just released the results of a district survey and our department has an 82 percent overall satisfaction rate among senior leaders at Aurora.”

When Ringelestein came on board in 2011, not only did the district begin to replace computers and network infrastructure, fresDon Ringelestein — Aurora West School District 129h IT staff was also part of the transition. “Our team members aren’t your typical computer techs that want to avoid dealing with people; they are customer service experts,” he says. “Anyone we hire has to be fanatical about customer service.”

Ringelestein says this focus on customer service stems from his background in corporate computer repair and the service industry. A tech geek at heart, this led him from studying philosophy to piloting Best Buy’s first in-house repair program — what later became the famous Geek Squad. “I had finished my coursework for my doctorate, but I couldn’t see a career panning out in philosophy so I applied for a job at Best Buy as a regional PC services trainer. I got the job and I covered Chicago, northwest Indiana and central Illinois.”

“At this point the service business wasn’t a major profit center for Best Buy, but there were about eight others working with me on the team and we managed to show the company that service could be a big margin source and also minimize the rate of product returns,” recounts Ringelestein.

This push for a more robust service arm led Best Buy to acquire the Geek Squad. “The Geek Squad was actually a separate entity that started in Minneapolis and moved to Los Angeles and then was bought by Best Buy,” says Ringelestein.

After his time with Best Buy, Ringelestein moved on to a smaller, family-owned company and then into the Oswego School District, where he worked as an end-user device management coordinator. All in all, his experience has heightened his awareness to the importance of the end-user experience.

Piloting a 1:1 device program

By putting end-user experience first and avoiding jumping aboard flashy tech bandwagons, Ringelestein and his team have been able to improve satisfaction and student achievement. “We’ve recently piloted a 1:1 program, testing it with Chromebooks and iPads with 25 to 30 students per class in more than 90 classrooms districtwide,” says Ringelestein.

“1:1 is all over the country — everyone is doing it, but not everyone is doing it right,” he says. The test project is designed to measure the approach with student achievement as the No. 1 success factor.

“The results from this first year have been encouraging from our survey work with teachers and student achievement data,” says Ringelestein. “We’re looking at student assessment performance between district and state standard assessments for students included in the 1:1 pilot and students without the 1:1 model to see what the achievement gap is. So far there is data to show higher achievement with the 1:1 students.” This fall Aurora will roll out the 1:1 program in 90 classrooms and send student devices home for the first time.

As part of this program, the District Leadership team has placed an emphasis on teacher training. “You can put a device in the hands of a student, but if the teacher doesn’t know how to use the technology, it is useless,” says Ringelestein. “We actually have a technology coach that works with teachers to show them ways to implement new devices and other technology platforms in their classrooms and make sure they’re comfortable with using it.”

Supporting more devices with a local service provider

School districts are among some of the largest consumers of bandwidth — some more than large corporations. With more 1:1 devices, Ringelestein must figure out a solution to the network demands. “The Federal Communications Commission [FCC] says we’re going to need 10 gigabits to keep pace; not many organizations use that much bandwidth,” he says.

Aurora’s internet service is provided by a local community-based nonprofit organization called Onlight Aurora. Ringelestein serves as an adviser to the company’s board of directors. “We get high-quality internet from Onlight Aurora, which uses the city’s fiber infrastructure to support us and other community-oriented businesses,” says Ringelestein. “It’s sort of a local economic engine and it offers us a robust connection with the service I cannot get from a large provider like AT&T. I can pick up a phone and speak to the president of OnLight Aurora, I cannot do the same with AT&T or Comcast.”

Lifelong learning

Ringelestein is also involved with another community development organization in Aurora. “Pathways to Prosperity is a combination of private businesses and schools, which helps engage the private sector to work together to help determine what students need to enter the workforce,” he says. “I was part of a monthly catalyst committee that did research to see where the 21st century jobs are — whether they are in IT, health care or advanced manufacturing. A lot of the jobs students will need to be ready for are ones that don’t even exist yet as technology evolves.”

While this research is important to keep pace with the changing job market, Ringelestein says the first step is to ignite a passion for learning so students want to pursue meaningful careers. “We’re using technology as a tool to offer need-based solutions that ensure our students come out of school with a passion for learning and that they understand learning still happens out of school; it happens on the job — and hopefully daily — long after they leave here.”

Don Ringelestein and his IT team continue to help to shape the West Aurora School District 129’s vision and technology goals while building a desire to learn, create and achieve that extends outside of the classroom.

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