In partnership with CoSN, eSchool News is highlighting the innovative and dedicated work of IT leaders in school districts across the country.

This month, the spotlight is on Lisa Higgins, Chief Technology Officer in Tennessee’s Collierville Schools.

1. What is your biggest IT challenge today?

Cybersecurity, for us, is the biggest challenge. Tennessee’s Department of Education (TDOE) has initiated an assessment of over 150 controls at varying levels. As one of three districts to pilot the program, completing the survey was an hours-long process completed as a team. Additionally, to be able to apply for grant money, a second survey of similar length is also required. While lengthy, the state assessment highlighted areas where we have growth opportunities; it also made evident that cybersecurity is not just a function of technology. After our team completed the TDOE assessment, we identified several controls that, without the help and support of other departments, we knew could not be achieved. We set up discussions with Finance, Human Resources, the Department of Exceptional Children, Curriculum, and Operations. This was a significant boost because every department was willing to help and created awareness of the need for cybersecurity measures in general. As a result, we have made progress in several areas, including MFA, vetting vendor security, and adding measures to ensure that student and staff data remain secure.

2. What project, initiative, or accomplishment are you most proud of?

Collierville Schools is celebrating its 10th year as a school district this year. The most logical choice would be starting in 2013 with approximately 3,500 student devices (all shared) to present, where every student Pre-K-12 is assigned a device for learning–this is a great project, initiative, and accomplishment. While I am proud of that, I would have to say the thing I am most proud of is the team that I am lucky enough to work with each day. Our Technology team has both instructional and technical staff. As the number of devices in our district has grown, so has our staff. Our staff works hard and pitches in wherever needed. The team knows that if I ask them to do something, I will also pitch in. Our team is empowered by engaging in conversations to solve problems and plan projects. I also encourage them to work with and establish relationships with other departments in our district and other districts. Our group is one of the most diverse in the district, and we operate with a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion. While we occasionally have staff leave, I am always proud and happy when one of our group moves on to a job with more responsibility.

3. What are your top 3 priorities over the next few years?

First, cybersecurity is a priority, as I detailed in the first question. Ensuring that we are as protected from cyberattacks as much as possible is huge. Second, preparing students for life after high school is another priority. Providing technology and also training in its correct use, from proper email etiquette, digital citizenship, digital footprint, collaboration, communication, and ways to share student work and accomplishments, are goals we work towards daily. Our district has many post-secondary opportunities outside the traditional college route. Welding, nursing, cybersecurity, and aviation are just some areas where students can get industry certifications while still in high school. This variety challenges our team to ensure our devices will support students in these areas. And finally, ensuring that our staff continues to grow in their skills and use of technology to enhance their teaching strategies to engage students.

4. Technology evolves at such a high rate–what are some of the school IT innovations you see coming down the pipeline, and which are you most excited for?

AI will have a significant effect on not only schools but the business world and beyond. We must find ways to embrace and use this technology positively and effectively. For example, a teacher could use this technology to compose an informational reading on a topic within their curriculum. They can ask that it be written for a specific reading level, then ask the AI platform to rewrite the same information at a different grade level. In this way, they could have instructional materials customized for students. This is a relatively easy way to individualize education. Another way could be that a teacher could ask for a writing sample with errors, then use that for students to identify those errors. Working with students in ways to use this type of technology is also powerful.

5. What advice would you give to other school IT leaders and school IT teams?

1. Foster and maintain good relationships with peers, both within your team and across departments. To succeed, it is critical to have a strong community and be active within that community. If possible, meet regularly with district leadership to ensure they accurately understand essential issues and garner support for initiatives.

2. Build a good team and support them. Identify yourself as a member of the IT team rather than as their boss or their leader. Recognize the unique talents of each team member and leverage those skills to produce positive outcomes for the district.  

3. Always think about what is best for the students and what you can do to get there. With technology, it can be easy to sometimes lose sight of the overall purpose. Adopting a student-first mentality helps ensure that tech leaders remain aligned with the district’s objectives.

4. Get involved with the technology community. Being an active participant in state technology associations and national organizations like CoSN gives you access to a professional group of peers you can learn and glean new ideas. With so many challenges, it is critical to have resources and other industry experts you can seek out for guidance and recommendations. 

5. Treat others the way you would like to be treated. This is a universal golden rule, but it is very applicable in K-12 learning environments. To build an effective and collaborative team and foster relationships within the IT peer community, you need to respect team members and treat them as you would appreciate being treated.

For more news on IT leadership and innovation, visit eSN’s IT Leadership page.

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