“At the end of the day, besides doing something innovative – like with our agriculture barns or our camera working with our SROs daily – keeping the kids safe has to be our primary focus. I love the fact that our network is so solid to help make this happen, and we have put in such a solid infrastructure internally.” – Jill Pierce: Chief Technology Officer, McMinn County Schools
Jill Pierce is the Chief Technology Officer at McMinn County Schools, a K-12 district located in Tennessee with 6,000 students and 450 staff across 13 buildings and nine schools. McMinn’s mission is to equip students for lifelong learning through academics, accountability, and learned experiences. With strong values important in an educational setting, the McMinn team’s specific mission is to leverage technology, including networking solutions that align and foster a safe, welcoming, and compelling environment.
As part of our Game Day is Everyday series, I chatted with Jill about the unique technology goals and challenges, and how the IT solutions are a critical part of McMinn’s ‘game day’ playbook.
I would love to hear about McMinn County Schools, and specifically, your biggest IT game day challenges and goals.
Our biggest issue is that the school district covers 432 roughly square miles in small communities, so getting even internet fiber to our buildings was a big start for us. Once we got to that point, we started to look at our infrastructure. In today’s environment, one of the biggest issues I think schools are facing is how do we manage all the devices and still follow the rules and safety of the students? We’re there to educate them, but we need to keep them safe in the physical building and online.
We go through pretty stiff procurement and purchasing regulations because it involves taxpayers’ dollars. So, we started the evaluation process four years ago and ended up going completely with Extreme. I’ve worked at McMinn County for eight years. When I came here there was not a consistent internet. Teachers didn’t trust it and we found that we needed to overhaul our entire network. Our game day plan first was to figure out where our challenges were. Where was our break down in equipment? What did we need to improve? By partnering with some really good companies and looking at our whole network, we started with a plan on what we needed to do in order to improve.
You mentioned the importance of keeping the children safe, what technology or devices are you using to ensure a safe environment for students?
We have invested in a lot of systems to ensure safety in our schools. We have instituted an app that our administration at the schools can get on the intercom through the Wi-Fi, so they don’t have to go to the handset. A consistent network has freed up our department to do focus on more proactive safety measure because we know the technology is solid.
We have about 400 cameras deployed right now and we’re going to be deploying more. Safety’s always a big issue and cameras help us. Right now, we’re in the process of working to have all the back end systems enabled by our network. We’re constantly looking at our bandwidth and the equipment the bandwidth runs on. That’s where Extreme has been a big advantage for us because we’ve been able to work with them and work with a reseller partner to say ‘Okay, here’s our gaps. Let’s look and see what we need to do for the future.’
Having a strong base network is a huge advantage when we look at anything we want to install or put on the network to help our kids. We just recently put all our press boxes on Wi-Fi, scattered across campuses. We’re one of the few districts in the state to offer this service.
At the end of the day, besides doing something innovative – like with our agriculture barns, or our camera working with our SROs daily – keeping the kids safe has to be our primary focus. I love the fact that our network is so solid, and we have put in such a solid infrastructure internally.
Safety is certainly a critical component to ‘game day’ at McMinn and having the technology to support your mission is essential.
I recently came across information on how the schools have robotics programs that teach STEM use skills. Would you mind touching upon the program you offer students that utilize technology?
We’ve got some things that we’re working on right now! The robotics is a great program, but it’s very important people know, to pursue innovative programs your network is involved in some capacity. One of the strong parts about having a good network is we don’t automatically have to say “no.” We have the bandwidth and we have the network capabilities to make it happen. So, it helps us in that respect: our purpose-built network helps us to be innovative. I understand Extreme is working with the NFL to install Wi-Fi 6 in their stadiums; we’re even looking at that for our stadiums.
In addition, we want to put in some STEM outdoor science classrooms. I was listening to the other esteemed panelists and it would be great if the school could set up Wi-Fi in the yard and we could have an outdoor classroom. So, maybe some of that technology is what we need to look at. I think the beauty of this is that we have those options.