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Lora Bennett – Charles County Public Schools

Plugging into digital equality for Charles County students

As quarantines swept the nation at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, students of Charles County, Maryland, were sent home—and Lora Bennett had to act quickly.

As the executive director of information technology strategy for Charles County Public Schools, she had a find a way to enable students to learn from the comfort and safety of their homes. She tells Toggle the biggest challenge and constraint for her and her team of technicians and engineers was time—closely followed by budget and availability. They had just days to purchase devices and deliver them to students across the district’s 39 schools. Federal funding only allowed purchases for those in need, but the district quickly created a plan to deploy devices to all students.

Lora Bennett | Executive Director of Information Technology Strategy | Charles County Public Schools

Lora Bennett | Executive Director of Information Technology Strategy | Charles County Public Schools

Equipment ranged from laptops to hotspots, the latter assisting students without access to reliable internet due to location or financial reasons.

As Charles County wasn’t the only organization closing its doors, devices were scarce, an issue exacerbated by many electronics manufacturers also having to suspend or significantly decrease production. Bennett took whatever was available, so every student could continue receiving an education.

However, she was dissatisfied with the situation and, in the past year or so, has finally gotten a chance to start rectifying it. She’s overseeing a program to refresh all student electronics and devices while ensuring each device has as much accessibility built into it as possible.

“During this time, we are also procuring devices for the staff and teachers, of course, but the top priority for everyone, not just my team, were the students,” Bennett says. “With students returning to classrooms, I have time now to increase digital equality and accessibility.”

Literal and figurative digital touchpoints

In 2020, when Bennett purchased laptops for the district’s students to use during quarantines, she was able to get some with touchscreens—about 950—but not enough for everyone. The district has more than 27,000 students.

“I gave those to the students who needed them, but my preference would have been for every student to have that option,” she says.

She explains having a touchscreen can be beneficial to all students, as it can, among other things, simplify editing, writing and highlighting in the Office Suite of programs. Laptops with touchscreens also come with programs for handwriting recognition, helping those who may be more comfortable or quicker at writing than typing.

Lora Bennett | Executive Director of Information Technology Strategy | Charles County Public Schools

“It really bothered me at a core level that everyone didn’t have the same devices and access to the same tools, whether they decided to use them or not,” says Bennett, who spent most of the first of half of 2023 overseeing the installation of touchscreens in the devices provided to elementary school students.

In summer 2023, she worked on and solidified a plan to replace devices or install touchscreens for middle and high school students. She hopes to have everyone using touchscreens within the next four years.

“Before COVID-19, we didn’t have one-to-one device programs for students that we now have in place,” Bennett says. “I’m ensuring we don’t stop there and continue evolving for our students—and teachers—across the district.”

Erasing the digital divide     

Starting her career as a math teacher with Charles County in August 1996, Bennett knows a calculator with even slightly advanced functions can be the difference between a student understanding algebra or struggling with it. She’s been taking the same approach to empowering students since June 2000, when she became the assistant LAN/WAN (local area network/wide area network) administrator for the district.

Since then, she’s watched the school system grow exponentially, not only in terms of the number of students and teachers but its advancements in technology.

She recalls how decades ago the data center was a physical centralized server room in a glorified closet and the main computer server was not rack mounted, as is now common in the industry, but placed under a table. The issue was the little door in front of the server, which refused to stay shut and exposed the power button with a hair trigger. When technicians moved on their hands and knees to check wires, cables or complete other tasks, they’d inevitably brush against the power button. This led to an agonizing 20-minute reboot of the server handling everything from e-mail to the centralized file systems.

Lora Bennett | Executive Director of Information Technology Strategy | Charles County Public Schools

Unfortunately, a public school system, according to Bennett, is different from corporations and other government organizations and offices because the budget is quite restrictive. So, she and her team have had to be innovative and creative. In the case of the server, they simply rigged a rubber band to the server door to keep it shut.

“It may not have been beautiful, but it worked beautiful,” she tells Toggle with a laugh. “We got things done, but we also continually evaluate and reevaluate, so we can make corrections, improve our programs and, in general, make everything easier and more equitable.”

That’s why in 2014, she chose and oversaw the implementation of the Clever App. Students use it to log onto their Microsoft accounts and access everything, including their work and grades, lunch payments and library fines, and information about upcoming school events. Previously, these were accessed via a variety of different links. She adds the single interface also makes it simpler for parents, especially as the county’s English-as-a-second-language population continues growing.

When she’s not tinkering with a computer, Bennett enjoys anime and comics—and is also active in her congregation and a sorority for women in education.

“With everything my team and I do at Charles County Public Schools, I always want to make it as simple as possible for students, so they can focus on learning and achieving their dreams—and so can their parents,” she says. “In many ways, I feel like I’m still a teacher because my top priority is our students, and I’m excited about the current and future tools my team and the school system provide them.”

View this feature in the Summer I 2023 Edition here.

Published on: July 25, 2023

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