Joe Barney – Riverbank Unified School District
It’s all in the timing. Or it’s gone, but not forgotten. Or perhaps it’s a bit of both as Joe Barney settles into retired life near Modesto, California—just as his longtime employer, the Riverbank Unified School District, prepares for a new school year in a new normal of distance learning.
After more than 17 years at RUSD, Barney retired as its IT Director on Dec. 31, 2019.
It’s hard not to envy his timing. Within three months, district buildings closed as COVID-19 swept across California. But those instincts pale when compared to his legacy in building an infrastructure that allowed RUSD to shift to e-learning.
Putting things in place was as much a passion as a job, Barney recalls. With two elementary schools, a middle school, two high schools and a language academy, the district serves about 3,000 students from transitional kindergarten through 12th grade.
“My first thought was we had everything in place to make this happen successfully,” Barney says. “Plus, I had been staying in contact with some of the teachers. I knew they were using Zoom already. They weren’t afraid to try long distance learning and they had the tools to do it.”
Wired for success
RUSD is a diverse and socioeconomically challenged district that was bare bones in terms of tech when Barney arrived—and for a while thereafter.
He remembers teachers having desktop computers, with perhaps a couple more available for classroom use by students (as well as about 30 for use in school libraries or computer labs). The first push to expand tech use came when teachers were required to use online grading and attendance software.
It wasn’t a sea change, but it caused a ripple effect that only grew as California moved to a digital platform for standardized student testing.
Meeting that coming demand required upgrades that began in 2012, Barney says, as wireless infrastructure was upgraded throughout the district. Two years later, new switches and fiber-optic cables increased bandwidth, providing the needed foundation for a 1:1 device program, launched in 2016.
Funding the changes
Because of the high percentage of RUSD students receiving free or reduced-cost lunches, the district also qualified to have nearly all of its upgrade and device costs covered by E-Rate, the Federal Communications Commission’s universal service program for schools and libraries.
“I guess the main thing was we could not do the curriculum and the testing,” he says. “E-Rate paying 85 percent was a very big factor because budgets were always tight.”
The 1:1 program distributed about 3,000 Chromebooks to students from grades 1 through 12, though until the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, only students from seventh grade up were allowed to take the devices home.
According to Barney, Chromebooks weren’t just a sound choice because of their ease of use; the screen size was more compatible with the formats for state achievement testing.
Even then, lack of bandwidth and internet accessibility inhibited at-home learning, so Barney enrolled the district in Sprint’s 1Million Project to provide free hotspots and internet with web filtering. This allowed disadvantaged students to have free internet at home.
RUSD uses the free Google Classroom web service for creating, distributing and grading assignments, and Barney and his staff came to rely on Hayes Software Systems to track all the hardware that students and staff are using.
“Having a good online inventory system using software to track devices is one of the most important things you can do,” he says.
TIPWeb-IT asset management software enables RUSD to create barcodes for its inventory. Meanwhile, its application programming interface links to the student information system used by the district.
This enabled Barney and RUSD staff to run nightly inventory reports, ensuring that there were enough spare devices available as other devices were being repaired or as students entered or left the district and needed a device.
“Inventory management and having a reliable repair vendor or repair system are the most important lessons learned after the 1:1 rollout,” he says.
So while Barney was easing into retired life in March, the tech framework he constructed not only withstood the pandemic, it ensured RUSD students could still continue to learn in the spring—and again in the fall as the district reopens using distance learning.
So how does someone who had no experience in education come to be the guiding force for a tech transformation in a public school district?
In Barney’s case, it was an aptitude for working with tech just as it was entering manufacturing in the late ‘80s.
A native of Modesto, he was then working as an industrial engineer at the Marley Cooling Tower Co.
“When I first started there we were doing inventory on index cards,” he recalls. “In my first year, they began moving to a computer inventory and scheduling system.”
Barney found he was adept at working with the Lotus software, and when the person leading the shift to computers left, the assignment became his by default.
“Success breeds confidence,” he says. “I was getting good information and plugging in numbers. I could see our inefficient areas and could focus on those areas to improve our overall efficiency. We also knew what our inventories and raw material numbers were in real time. We then developed a formalized computerized work order and maintenance program.”
Barney became an engineer with Advanced Interconnect Technologies in 2001. Unfortunately, that new opportunity failed as the company lost its customer base after the 9/11 attacks. Barney also lost out on 8,000 shares of stock options as the company was scheduled to hold an initial public stock offering.
In 2002 Barney joined RUSD as a network administrator.
“The job was similar because of the hardware,” he says, “Then I found I really enjoyed working with the staff and the kids. The key was to form relationships without being dogmatic. The main reason I stayed that long was because I enjoyed my coworkers—the staff, teachers, office personnel. And I like thinking I was able to put the things in place to help them get through COVID.”
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