School linking to community

The Memphis City Schools district, spurred by a greater need for community contact, is developing a portal that would fill instructional and administrative needs, including online registration and training.

"Everybody knows in education that accountability is the word today," said Linda Mainord, the Tennessee district's information technology director. "Part of that accountability is having strong relationships with your parents and your community."

By providing a single point of access, Mainord said a portal could offer information about neighborhood schools, ease the application process for free and reduced-price lunch programs, enable users to view educational material and homework assignments, and facilitate communication between the school and community.

The portal also would be used for training faculty and staff. "Let's say we roll out a new application and teach people how to use it," she said. "When you have almost 200 locations, keeping the staff trained is a challenge."

The current site (www.memphis-schools.k12.tn.us) is largely static, and the district's systems enable employees to perform some internal administrative and personnel functions. But earlier this year, the district began adding functionality by deploying IBM Corp.'s WebSphere Portal and hopes to launch major initiatives by this fall.

For the time being, Mainord said some interactive applications are being tested internally until security procedures and policies — including access, acceptable use and encryption — are established. Her department recently hired a security administrator to review such policies.

IBM, which has a longstanding partnership with the district, is helping to develop the portal, but Mainord said that skills transfer is a priority so district employees can develop future applications internally.

The district, which has more than 120,000 students and 15,000 full-time employees, has progressed well technologically. Every classroom is wired with Internet access, the district created a wide-area network and it is in the midst of rolling out a voice-over-ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) network.

Mainord estimated that to help pay for many projects, the district has received $80 million from the federal E-Rate program, which provides schools and libraries up to 90 percent discounts on Internet access and telecommunications infrastructure and for internal connections.

The district also is kicking off four new distance-learning classrooms using two-way videoconferencing that will also use the Internet to teach students who have learning difficulties.

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