It may have been nineteen years ago when Jim Culbert began his path in the technology industry, but he never had to venture too far. He began working in Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, as a field technician, troubleshooting software and hardware issues in schools all over the county. Today, as the chief information officer, Culbert is in the same place, but his journey has been busy, to say the least.
In between his work in the field and his executive role today, he has successfully transformed the district schools’ technology capabilities, putting Duval on the cutting edge of IT and changing the way students learn and teachers teach.
“I didn’t have a degree in IT, but I gained computer knowledge and experience while I was in the navy, and later, while working for the federal government,” Culbert says. “I went to work for the school system because I wanted a change of pace and because the federal government was going through downsizing at that time.”
Culbert then slowly moved up through the school system’s IT ranks, working in various positions. “I went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in information security online at Western Governors University,” he adds. “After that, I was promoted to security manager for the school district.”
In the following years, the arrival of a new superintendent brought in fresh staff members. Culbert applied to become the new CIO, and he was selected to be the new executive director.
All the time he was working up the ladder, though, Culbert had his eye on the executive leadership position and saw his opportunity. “At some point in my career, it became a goal of mine,” he says. “Being the security manager allowed me to leapfrog into the IT director position. In this role, I would have plenty of opportunities to affect change in the school district.”
In a public school district, one of the challenges with IT, Culbert says, is getting students, teachers, and the principals to understand what their core work is all about.
“Before I came in, the CIO did its own thing without input from the end user,” Culbert says. “In this case, the end users are the students, teachers, parents, and administrators. The position pushed programs without taking the time for their input.”
Culbert says the core work of IT should be centered around the classroom. To help ensure this, Culbert utilizes OneView, which he compares to a single pane of glass.
“A single pane of glass allows resources from different sites into one view for users,” he says. “When we developed it, we brought in a Microsoft team who went out and met with users—in this case, middle and high school students, teachers, administrators, and parent groups. We asked them, ‘If you had a portal that could do anything, what would it do?’ We had the parents sign off on their portal, the students sign off on their portal, the administrators sign off on their portal, and the teachers sign off on their portal.”
After logging in, the students’ portal, for example, allows children to access their grades, assignments, calendar, resources, e-mail, documents, bus schedule, lunch menu, and blended learning resources, Culbert says. “Before, students didn’t have online storage of documents,” he says. “Now, each student has a terabyte of space to store documents that they can access from school, home, or their phones.”
Culbert says that teachers also have a single sign-on for all learning applications. For example, they can access a roster for all students and use I-Ready—a blended learning platform that can incorporate chapters from different textbooks and online activities. “This is a different model of teaching and learning,” he says. “When I went to school in the 1980s, we started on page one of the textbook and would read until the end of the textbook. Now, with technology, you can customize students’ learning in one central place.”
The benefits of this new tech is more than evident, particularly when it comes to seeing a transformation in Duval’s middle schools. “We walk into a classroom and teachers are running different learning centers. Maybe one group of students is doing textbook instruction while another group is working with an interactive monitor, and a third group in the same classroom is doing group individualized instruction with the teacher,” he says. “This is vastly different than the traditional lecture-centered environment in classrooms.”
Culbert believes blending learning with technology is essential. He explains that it is difficult to ask children to power down all electronics, put everything away, and focus entirely on the teacher. “These programs allow the use of technology—interactive touchscreen monitors that any student can plug into,” he says.
Duval County Public Schools are also fortunate to have an average of 1.5 computers for every one student, he says. In middle schools throughout the district, there is one computer for every student; in elementary schools, there are two computers for every student; and in high schools, there are 1.75 computers for every student.
“Computers stay in the schools; they don’t go home with the children,” he says. “Every core classroom—math, English, science, and social studies—has a laptop cart, and there are interactive monitors in all the classrooms.”
Culbert says that over the past three years, the Duval school district implemented high-density wireless so that every classroom in the district can support about fifty wireless devices. “I know we’re at the forefront of IT systems in public schools,” Culbert says. “We’re now getting teachers who have worked with these IT systems at Duval, and while interviewing at other schools, they are asking principals if they have interactive monitors. I have never heard of this before.”