Pam McLeod – Concord School District

Managing tech for better teaching

As technology begins to take on a more central role in the classroom, school districts are increasingly turning to experienced technology professionals to help stay up to date with the latest products and systems. In Concord, New Hampshire, Pam McLeod has been leading the school district’s technology efforts as director of technology since 2014, bringing years of private sector, higher education, and prior K-12 experience to the state’s fourth-largest school district.

“I’m responsible for managing everything related to technology, including project management, device management, software, data, and technology budgeting,” says McLeod, whose district includes seven schools with more than 4,600 students.

Pam McLeod – Concord School District

While hers is primarily a management position, most technology directors in education are involved in some of the more technical aspects of the job and McLeod is no exception. “I tend to gravitate toward information systems, so I’ll be involved in online registration for our student information system and improving our business processes; I love that kind of stuff. I’m also always looking to streamline or save money through technology,” says McLeod.

Still, there is much work that falls to McLeod’s team of technology professionals that includes two systems and network administrators, a data analyst and two support technicians. “I tend to leave hardware and even some software aspects to the team and focus on larger issues,” she says.

Bringing engineering lessons to the public education sector

McLeod discovered her passion for computers while working to earn her electrical engineering degree at University of Wyoming. “I really liked the computer aspect of engineering,” she says. She then completed a Master of Engineering degree in Civil Engineering at Purdue University, specializing in geomatics and spatial information systems.

Upon graduating, McLeod took a position with Maine Maritime Academy (MMA) as a research scientist, system administrator and instructor at the institution’s Corning School of Ocean Studies. In this role, McLeod was able to combine her technological expertise with her long-held interest in the outdoors in helping MMA run its geographic information systems (GIS) before moving on to take on similar roles with URS Corporation and the University of New Hampshire.

“I grew up on a ranch in Wyoming and GIS was a very outdoor-oriented technology, so it gave me the chance to combine my interest in the outdoors and technology,” says McLeod. At MMA, McLeod gained experience in network administration, UNIX and Windows servers as well as education. “I did some teaching there and that has definitely carried forward as I do a lot of training of adults now,” she says.

After MMA, worked for URS Corporation (private) and University of New Hampshire Center for Coastal & Ocean Mapping her priorities began to shift. When it came time to reenter the workforce, she took a position as the director of technology for her hometown school district in Alton, New Hampshire. “I had never imagined myself in education and thought it would be temporary, but I really liked the diversity and challenge of it and liked being close to my kids,” she says.

McLeod’s experience in the private sector and engineering background prepared her for her current role as Concord’s lead technology specialist; a role that requires a considerable amount of organizational prowess. “Even though I don’t use engineering at all anymore, there is a mindset that is very specific to the way you go about organizing yourself and go about answering questions. I use those sorts of process-based techniques here every day,” she says.

The right device for the job

While McLeod was not present during the initial launch of the school district’s 1:1 device initiative, the project has become a focus of her tenure. The district outfits students in in grades K-8 with iPads. Students in higher grades get Chromebooks.

The district’s decision to provide younger students with iPads and older students with Chromebooks was largely a question of functionality, according to McLeod.

“The device debate always gets pretty heated, but it’s not about the device. iPads are very creative and have a lot of apps that really appeal to younger students, whereas the high school has a very strong Google Apps for Education culture, so we basically started with a list of functions that curriculum facilitators identified and went through the selection process that way,” she says.

While it can be tempting to latch on to the newest, most buzzed-about technology solutions, McLeod’s experience allows her to take a more critical, measured approach when choosing a device. “It’s about finding a device that fits your needs, not molding our needs to fit a device,” she says.

While it can be tempting to latch on to the newest, most buzzed-about technology solutions, McLeod’s experience allows her to take a more critical, measured approach when choosing a device.

The district had initially piloted a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) program, but nixed it when students and staff had difficulty signing on to the district’s previous wireless network with such a wide variety of hardware. In an effort to make it easier for guest users to sign in to the network, Concord also recently purchased Aruba ClearPass network access control. “This should help us more easily onboard guest devices,” she says.

Applying for funds from the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program, Concord also recently upgraded its entire wireless network and most of its wired network, starting with the district’s high school. “Being able to take advantage of that program was significant in our ability to improve the overall infrastructure. We’re working on the middle school now and then will move on to the two older elementary schools,” says McLeod.

Technology’s effect on testing

Testing is a vital part of the educational process, but not everyone agrees how to do it. In Concord, the PACE system, short for performance assessment of competency education, is gaining traction as an alternative to traditional standardized testing. “I think it’s a trend that’s part of people looking for more meaningful assessments. It’s really exciting to work on that and it drives a lot of what we’re doing as a district and even as a state,” she says.

While this different kind of assessment could reduce the district’s reliance on technology McLeod still must ensure the district’s computers can handle the increased workload when the students are taking federal required tests.

“In the spring of 2015, we assessed every child grades three to eight plus grade 11 in two subject areas, so that’s a lot of computer time and we were not comfortable doing it without external keyboards,” she says. “It causes a big backlog at the computer labs for an extended period of time, and some of our elementary schools don’t even have computer labs, so we had to create temporary labs just for testing.”

The district’s technology program has been branded as empowerED, with an accompanying logo created by Concord Regional Tech Center Graphic Arts student Taylor Smith. “The program really reflects the district’s commitment to getting a device into the hands of every child in the district,” she says.

The district has launched a student help desk in support of its IT goals, with students themselves assisting staff and other students. “We’re really teaching it as a course and have students working on really thoughtful projects. They’re not just running around doing tech support, they’re creating user guides, videos, blogs, and websites,” she says.

Also at Concord High School, an initiative launched in 2014 has allowed students to learn computer coding. Concord’s Christa McAuliffe Elementary School, is a STEM school (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math), which also has a girl’s coding club. All of the district’s schools participate in the global Hour of Code initiative.

Ensuring internet access for all students

With as much as 38 percent of Concord’s students receiving free or reduced school lunch, the challenge of providing the technology needed to ensure success extends well beyond the classroom. While it’s still in its formative stages, McLeod does have a goal to investigate off-campus wireless access for underprivileged students.

Currently students can drop into school or a local library if they need Wi-Fi access, but McLeod would like to see this coverage extend to homes and public places with the help of local businesses and community organizations. “We’re hoping that we can leverage those partnerships to help fund that kind of a program, whether it’s wireless hotspots on buses, in backpacks, or at local businesses,” she says.

McLeod is also helping to coordinate the district’s paperless initiative through an increased emphasis on the use of centralized printing hubs and document sharing and is looking to leverage the district’s wealth of data through the Microsoft Power BI (Business Intelligence) platform. “It gives us a graphic visualization of data so we can track things like budget data and attendance trends,” she says.

In just two years at the helm of the Concord School District’s IT department, Pam McLeod has used her considerable experience to ensure that students and teachers have the technology necessary to succeed in their academic and personal goals. Looking ahead, there should be little doubt that McLeod will continue on in her mission to promote quality education through the continued integration of technology into the classroom.

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