Roger Brunelle – Naperville Community Unit School District 203
When Roger Brunelle arrived at Naperville Community Unit School District 203 (NCUSD) in 2010, after a successful run in the private sector, many in the district weren’t sure what to expect. For some, the assumption was that the new CIO would test the waters of change cautiously, one toe at a time.
Instead, Brunelle went for the reverse triple somersault off the high board—though he says his eyes were always on the entry point: a brand new, $1 million student information system (SIS) that represented a fundamental change for NCUSD.
But, as with any great dive, hitting it cleanly required plenty of coaching.
“Whenever you’re looking at a change of that magnitude, you have to get buy in and leadership from key stakeholders involved—administrators, department heads, building leadership, teachers, parents, as well as students,” says Brunelle. “You can’t just charge ahead and hope for the best. You have to have that input, ownership and feedback.”
Drawing on his extensive corporate experience, Brunelle’s first initiative—spearheaded with the leadership of Director of Data and Applications Ken Wilson—was to establish a coherent “initiative governance structure”: defining clear roles and responsibilities and establishing timeline and budget parameters for how to manage a large-scale project effectively.
By late 2010, the suburban Chicago district had settled on Infinite Campus, a platform that provides an integrated and robust set of functionalities that spanned the school district’s operational gamut.
“It immediately became a cornerstone tool for the district,” Brunelle recalls. “The learning curve was pretty steep, but once we got used to the project approach and methodologies, it was just a matter of building and adding where necessary.”
Following the platform’s successful implementation, Brunelle took an equally aggressive approach to replacing and updating many of the technology solutions across the district, including systems used for assessment, career tracking, finance and human resources, data warehousing, reporting tools, and more.
Eight years later, Infinite Campus remains the district’s central nervous system, housing data on more than 16,000 students, including attendance records, grades, class rosters, calendars and disciplinary records.
Leveling the playing field
With back-end systems and a collaborative methodology both firmly in place, Brunelle turned his attention to the next big project: overhauling NCUSD’s WiFi infrastructure—in essence, bringing all 25 of the district’s buildings under a single, unified and future-proof wireless network—to support an aggressive 1:1 digital learning initiative (meaning one computing device for each student).
Working closely with a team of district administration and staff, led by Director of Technology Infrastructure Joe Jaruseski and Director of Innovation and Learning Jill Hlavacek, NCUSD introduced new Chromebooks to all 6,000 high school students in 2015.
The following year, the district’s 4,500 junior high students were brought into the 1:1 fold. K-5 students soon followed, with iPads for kindergarteners and first-graders and Chromebooks for grades 2-5, rounding out the initiative in 2017.
The resulting investment—approximately 17,000 devices totaling over $5 million—would be a heavy burden for any school district, but Brunelle and his team had a creative solution.
“Instead of paying up front, we decided to do four-year leases,” he explains. “That let us spread the costs out over the useful life of the computers in such a way that we could do more planning year to year for other initiatives, rather than being hamstrung for two or three years and then seeing large spikes in spending when device refresh was needed in the out years.”
Plug and play
The result has been a veritable cornucopia of web-based tools to support the teaching and learning activities of district staff and students. Through Canvas, the district’s learning management system (LMS), students can collaborate on projects, submit assignments, stream curriculum-related videos and even catch up on missed lesson plans—whether they’re at home or school.
Meanwhile, Google’s G Suite allows multiple students to work on documents simultaneously and communicate with peers in other states or even countries.
For the district’s approximately 1,200 teachers, the results have been equally transformative. Now, rather than having to request specific software from the IT department—a process that would often take weeks—teachers can now receive licensing permission for online resources much more quickly.
According to Brunelle, greater connectivity has also bolstered student safety. Within the Chromebooks, tight filters prevent users from accessing or downloading offensive content, while a robust threat-monitoring system alerts Brunelle’s department of any potential breaches.
“We recently had the Department of Homeland Security evaluate us, and we have moved to an A-plus for network vulnerability efforts,” Brunelle says. “That’s an enormous achievement for a district this size. And it’s because we had buy-in and support from the beginning.”
Over the past five years, NCUSD implemented a mass-notification system—complete with prerecorded messages, digital signage and advanced camera functionality—designed to provide live and up-to-the-minute information and safety guidelines during an emergency. In addition, Brunelle’s team works closely with the district’s Director of Safety and Security to ensure that the IT capabilities are in place to support all of the district’s safety-related initiatives.
Still, he says the tools are just part of the equation. A supportive board and superintendent, an engaged community, a staff that embraces change and sees the road ahead: Brunelle likens them to ingredients in a healthy smoothie. Without them, all you have are empty calories.
“Whether you’re in industry or public education, IT is IT, the basic infrastructure of networks and computing solutions are the same,” Brunelle says. “The key is being able to quickly assess, without any bias, what would be most helpful for the district. And I’ve been extremely lucky to have the freedom to do that. The superintendent, staff and board have been incredibly supportive.”
Eight years after making that fateful leap, Brunelle says the IT waters have become much easier to navigate. Calm enough to see the grateful waves of those that matter most—the students—clearly on the shore.
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