Achievement First manages public charter schools in the Northeast. It has grown into a network that now includes includes 32 schools in five cities. The first school, Amistad Academy, opened in 1999 with 84 fifth and sixth graders. In the just completed 2015-16 school year, Achievement First served 10,000 students in grades K to 12.
That’s the cut-to-the-chase description of what, in reality, is a highly complex and innovative enterprise in which young learners from all types of backgrounds, skill levels and achievement potential are exposed to teaching masters who utilize all of today’s learning and communications platforms in “wired” classroom environments. The underlying backbone is a managed IT system provided by Digital BackOffice, a business service firm that has become Achievement First’s partner in education attainment.
K-12 education entities are often undermanned in IT, in part due to budget concerns and in part the result of a mindset that technology mustn’t get in the way of inter-personal dialogue between teacher and student. For example, K-12 schools typically employ one IT worker for every 600 devices while corporations employ one for every 80 devices on average. But as technology has gained wider acceptance, the number of supported devices has increased dramatically.
For Achievement First, based in New Haven, CT, the immediate question facing its founders was how to marry the organization’s mission of equal educational opportunity with the right blend of IT support systems and technology platforms to help achieve the organization’s profoundly important goals. Its first public charter school, Amistad Academy, had opened in 1999 with the goal of teaching some of New Haven’s most underserved youth. But Amistad Academy had no IT department. Without a technology partner to build and maintain the school’s technological infrastructure, continued growth was uncertain.
Enter Digital BackOffice, a managed service provider with expert technological services for growing enterprises. Based in nearby Milford, CT, Digital BackOffice offers shared software, co-location services, managed networks and integration support for public sector and educational entities. Like Amistad Academy.
Amistad hired its first IT manager, Laurie Bussmann, who was required to do whatever was needed to get things at the school up and running. Laurie had previously worked with DBO, knew its capabilities, and thought it would be a perfect fit. She was more right than she imagined. Amistad got not just an IT vendor, but a partner and a budding relationship that has grown and strengthened as additional schools joined the Achievement First family.
The Achievement First Technology Team
A MEETING OF THE MINDS
From those early days at Amistad, success of Achievement First’s mission is measured by student achievement, often against great odds and seemingly implacable obstacles. The original concept for Achievement First was created by a group of Yale law students who simply wouldn’t accept the often dismal academic performance among urban youngsters, most of them black or Latino, as well as impoverished. The students’ exposure to technology was limited at best.
Amistad Academy created a rigorous academic environment that began at 7:45 in the morning and ran until 5:00 in the afternoon – or later. The Yale law students provided oversight and suggestions, and dedicated teachers and administrators did the rest.
The formula worked. Student test scores for math and reading doubled and tripled. Scholarship offers blossomed like spring flowers. Soon, Achievement First began planning an expansion of additional public charters based on the Amistad example.
Digital BackOffice’s role expanded, as well. An early example of its service came about as Achievement First opened new schools in New York. The first school, Amistad, had worked on a Windows 2003 server that was sufficient for the school’s needs, but much too slow for the New York schools. DBO suggested moving the server to its data center in Wilton, CT., 30 days free of charge, to see if things improved. They did and today, Achievement First’s server is off-site in a secure data center that is monitored 24×7.
Today, Achievement First’s mission of delivering extraordinary education continues, with Digital Back Office assisting at every step along the way. Perhaps the best example is Achievement First’s ability to provide individualized student instruction through online testing and evaluation programs. Students go online to answer a series of questions that enable teachers to evaluate – in real time – which of their students are prospering, which are struggling, and where intervention may be needed. The important point is that the service provides immediate data on student performance, which in turn enables instructors to formulate lesson plans tailored to each student.
“I can not overstate the importance of having a strong backbone of technology support,” said Ms. Bussmann, now Vice President, Operations and Technology. “The ability to be nimble, to be responsive and to individualize instruction as the need arises is a huge advantage in delivering positive educational outcomes. For 12 years DBO has partnered with us to deliver the necessary infrastructure seamlessly.”
In sum, Achievement First’s educational model is the driver of growth and success, as DBO would be the first to agree. The formula it has employed is remarkable for its simplicity: students thrive in a college-preparatory environment in which all students will learn, achieve and go to college. The school day and year are structured to infuse students with a love of learning and to provide them with the academic and character skills necessary to succeed in college and a competitive world.
THE BENEFITS OF PARTNERSHIP
DBO’s long-standing, 12-year relationship with Achievement First schools has been challenging and rewarding, but also exciting. Helping a visionary organization reach its goals, especially in a sector where success often seems frustratingly elusive, has given DBO a clear perspective on how its portfolio of IT services can serve a critical societal goal.
“I think, in retrospect, that Digital BackOffice hasn’t just played the typical vendor role for Achievement First,” says Dale Bruckhart, DBO’s Vice-President of Public Sector Marketing. “We’ve also learned some valuable lessons about forging relationships based on trust and confidence that are helping us create innovative solutions for all of our clients.”
What are those lessons? Bruckhart suggests these:
- Hosted Exchange – as Achievement First began expanding its school network beyond Amistad Academy, it was quickly apparent that hosting the server resolved many internal communications issues while freeing up administrators to focus on their educational goals. In today’s cloud environment, organizations have many new opportunities to off-load huge and expanding loads of content, while still retaining control of the organizational raison d’etre.
- Single Vendor – DBO’s experience with Achievement First, as well as other clients, has demonstrated beyond all doubt that a single IT partner makes the most sense for entrepreneurial organizations. It entrusts responsibility in a single entity, for one thing. A single vendor relationship builds trust, which encourages shared decision-making. It enhances overall connectivity and boosts security. Most of all, it reduces the over-the-shoulder anxiety that many organizations experience when they begin having IT issues. With Achievement First, DBO has had a seat at the table, with access to top management and a shared vision of sustaining growth.
- Vendor Relationships – Digital BackOffice’s corporate parent is a HP reseller. It has a deep working relationship with leading vendors like Microsoft, Cisco and Palo Alto Networks. It also utilizes the services of iBoss, which offers a secure, filtered web gateway platform that enables modern learning with next-generation features that protect student data, maintain regulatory compliance and defend the school network against advanced threats and malware.
- Shared Vision – An IT vendor, no matter its expertise, will not serve clients effectively unless it fully understands the customer’s vision and objectives. With Achievement First, Digital BackOffice quickly wrapped its head around the organization’s purpose, and based its IT recommendations on solutions that made sense not just for students, but also for teachers and administrators. “All too often, there’s a perceptual wall between IT and the rest of the client’s organization, which can stymie progress and result in solutions that have little buy-in from users,” explains Ron Rich, DBO’s Managing Partner. “We’ve helped Achievement First achieve its goals, and we’ve also learned from our experience with them. That makes all the difference.”
In today’s hyper-connected world, information technology is ubiquitous, but often viewed with mistrust and a tinge of anxiety by those who are not comfortable with concepts like “platforms,” or “VOIP protocols.” For their part, IT professionals are experts who live and work in a complex, highly technical environment; they tend to believe that solutions to all problems reside in technology. While this is changing as technology has evolved into an effective partner with organizations of all types, it is still the case that for IT service to be effective, its managers, technicians and administrators must be, first of all, trusted advisors to their clients, know how to speak their language, and convey a sense of confident reliability. In other words, technology follows trust.
Working with Achievement First, Digital BackOffice has been able to offer effective IT solutions that have helped the organization attain its lofty goals — and begin looking ahead to what’s next. At the same time, DBO has learned from Achievement First that inspiration and confidence are the keys to learning. Once those emotions are ignited, our broad array of IT solutions and ideas help keep the flame of learning alive.
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