Edward Hilton – Tahoe Truckee Unified School District
When Edward Hilton was asked to oversee the installation of a new computer lab, he had a better idea.
Instead of a lab with desktop computers, he proposed a more modern, yet less expensive, idea for Tahoe Truckee Unified School District’s alternative school. Rather than buying computers that had to be shared, he suggested every student get their own laptop.
While some in the district questioned why the alternative school should be the first to have a one-to-one laptop program, the superintendent was on board. Not only did it become a model for the entire district, but it was the launching point of a new technology department developed and led by Hilton in 2014.
He started in the district in 2005 as a teacher, before becoming a technology specialist and eventually the director of technology and information services. He’s facilitated the technology upgrade districtwide, making the transition to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic a little easier to manage.
“The good thing is that we’d been building our technology access for students and teachers for years prior to the pandemic,” Hilton notes. “Because we’d already invested in updated technology, we’re in a good spot.”
Access for all
Tahoe Truckee Unified School District serves over 4,000 students in 12 schools, spread across 720 square miles in northeastern California.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, and students had to learn remotely, Hilton and his team made sure every one of them had internet access. Despite students living across three counties, they had most of them connected within two days.
To accomplish this, he called several network providers and carriers, both national and regional, to get hotspots for students without cable connections and to secure reduced student rates for families who already had Wi-Fi in their homes. Some students live in remote and rural areas, but Hilton and his staff made sure no one was left with a bad connection.
In one instance, an IT staff member drove to a student’s house at the top of a mountain and installed a cell phone signal boosting antenna for them. In another, an employee went to a student’s house to teach their 75-year-old parents how to use a Chromebook, so they could support their child.
Hilton’s team also worked with the Truckee Donner Public Utility District, which put broadband cables on utility poles. Because there was so much area to cover, Hilton used a matrix to create a density map to cluster students by lack of access and “worked from the bottom up” to create a schedule.
“Providing access to technology really opens up opportunities for students,” Hilton says, adding that it was equally important no one had to figure out remote learning without support, including teachers.
In March 2020, when it became clear that the schools would need to shut down, Hilton and other IT staff created resources for teachers.
Over four days, they made video tutorials, which were sent to all teachers, on how to use technology to teach remotely. Video topics ranged from running virtual meetings and learning management systems to optimizing curriculum for remote learning.
Hilton and his team also held virtual office hours for teachers four days a week. They expanded their help desk, not just for teachers, but for parents, too. The system sends a ticket to an IT staff member, who then calls the person to talk through the issue and fix it remotely.
When students and teachers came back in October for a hybrid schedule (with students placed in cohort groups for in-person and remote learning on alternating days), he and his team gave teachers a two-day crash course. Each classroom already had large screen TVs and webcams that teachers knew how to use, but they needed training on how to use them with students who were at home.
The equipment was purchased through two bond projects passed in 2014, totaling $300 million, that included an update to the district’s entire network and classroom technology. Hilton had advocated for the improvements because he knew how important technology would be for students’ development.
“Technology is everywhere now and is used in every career field, so students need access to this,” he says. “We wanted to provide all kids with technology and the promise of what technology can help them achieve.”
Hilton is excited for the pandemic to end and thinks technology will play a big role in what comes next.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, all this technology was for survival, but once everyone is back in the classroom full time, there’ll be many opportunities for creativity and innovation,” he notes.
The pandemic has allowed the district to be more tech-savvy, Hilton says, and with this new mindset, he wants to see “what other benefits it can provide.” He thinks there will be more room for collaboration among students and across the district for teachers. He also wants to evaluate how his department can use technology to better support teachers and staff.
With 20 percent of students not participating in hybrid learning and continuing to learn entirely remotely, Hilton imagines some families may want to continue this into the future. He’s developing a remote learning program for students who feel safer this way or learn better at home.
For Hilton, technology is all about solving problems. It’s what drove to him to establish the first one-to-one laptop program—he likes helping people, especially students. While he might not be a teacher anymore, it’s important to him to have an impact on education.
“What I enjoy most is working with people,” he says. “In education, you’re in the people business. And I’m a tech geek, so this is the perfect job.”
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