Tech chief makes hard drive to revamp school networks

Computer expert seeks a more efficient system

April 18, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

There was a time in the Howard County school district when a newly enrolled family with three children would have to fill out three different student information cards, send them to three different schools and have them entered manually first into the schools' systems and then the central office's.

The 1980s? The 1970s?

No, that was last year.

Technology in Howard's schools and offices has grown with the exploding enrollment and changing times. But it has not always happened in the best and most efficient way.

Enter Jay Fridkis.

As the system's first chief information and technology officer, Fridkis is a frontiersmen of sorts. The e-world in front of him is vast and uncharted, and many hopes are pinned on what he is able to do to make it all make sense.

"Schools and school districts have only just recently tried to grapple with how this all fits together," said Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, about the meshing of classroom/instruc- tional-based technology and administrative technology. "We've had fits and starts in terms of our growth in that area. But we have not had a tightly coordinated, closely aligned technology program in this school system. That's what I look to Jay to do."

Since he was hired in November, Fridkis, 39, has begun to meet O'Rourke's expectations.

He has brought together five central office departments under one umbrella, focusing the district's technology efforts more narrowly.

He has strengthened old partnerships and developed new ones with businesses and technology vendors.

He has helped school employees learn to coordinate their piecemeal technology tools so they work together more efficiently.

And he has implemented new software that links the schools and the central office in a way it has not been done before.

"If we needed to know how many students were enrolled in Algebra 1 and Algebra 2, we had to call the schools and ask them to run a report," Fridkis said. "And if it [the report] wasn't electronically transferred, then it was actually brought in and re-entered."

The new software, called Open District, connects school and central office technology. Fridkis' department reorganization makes the tie-in simpler.

"Attendance used to be reported once a month," said Linda Dolan, the district's manager of information services. "Now it comes up the next day. Today's attendance comes up tonight so that tomorrow morning we can look up and see if a child was here today, whereas, before, we wouldn't know that for a month."

Some people used Macintosh computers, others used PCs. In between, a lot was lost, Fridkis said.

"There was really no coordination and alignment. A lot of people reported to different departments, and a lot of stuff was duplicated unnecessarily," said school spokeswoman Patti Caplan, of the system's pre-Fridkis foray into the world of technology. "That was a big area of confusion in the past. Everybody was concerned about their one little area. Now, he's standing on top of it looking at the whole thing."

With a bachelor's degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master's degree in international finance from Columbia University, as well as an expert background in data management and technology, Fridkis seems to have been training all his life for this job.

Today, the school system's main data center, on the ground floor of board headquarters, looks like something out of the movie War Games - huge machines whir and click away behind beige plastic casings and thick glass walls.

Soon, Fridkis says, the system's hardware will be smaller, lighter and, surprisingly less expensive, in much the same way a bulky desktop computer has been transformed into the slender laptop.

"We're not going to spend any more, and we're going to get a whole lot more," he said.

In less than five years, Fridkis said, the school system would be operating at an efficiency level that matches the high level of programming and achievement for which Howard County is known.

Although many people are stumped by technology , Fridkis said it will get easier - with help from him and his staff.

"To me, it's not magic, but it is creative and it is different in terms of how we look at the school system," he said.

"I'm not doing technology right now, although everything I do is technology," Fridkis added. "Right now, the main thing that I am doing is leadership, improving communication, sales and marketing - which is what will help us to achieve our goals. Everything is about how are we going to develop technology for curriculum.

"My vision is to make us work smarter and better," he said.

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