A Modern IT Environment Helps Grossmont Union High School District Stay Top of Class

HPE GreenLake

I had lofty goals when I came to Grossmont Union High School District (GUHSD). I told the superintendent that I aimed to make it the top school district IT department in the state.

Today, we are—and it’s been a long time in the making.

GUHSD is a public school district that serves high school, and adult education students in San Diego County, California. Over the past 20 years, the community has approved three separate bond measures to modernize school facilities, and IT has used some of those funds to refresh cabling and access points as part of school rebuilds.

When I stepped into the role of CIO in 2010, the IT modernization and digital transformation cranked up a notch. We ripped out and replaced everything (some things, more than once). We achieved our quest to be the top school district IT department in California and have gone for multiple years without any interruption in service—unheard of in the education space.

By 2020, we had several mature programs that made it fairly easy to transition to distance learning during the pandemic. These programs include giving every student a Chromebook for use during their time with us and providing teachers with a new laptop every four years. We also had a learning management system in place.

But nothing stands still. We’re continually updating, patching, and refreshing. Twice under my watch, we have refreshed our two network operation centers (NOCs). Our needs always exceeded what we had carefully projected five years earlier, and each refresh was a capital expenditure. Even though we were trying to make our infrastructure meet these increased demands, my IT department hasn’t grown, and we didn’t have the capacity to innovate and move new applications forward. 

New Questions for a New-to-Us Platform

As we started gearing up for another refresh in 2021, I had another idea. I’d kept an eye on the development of cloud environments and watched the growth of the HPE GreenLake edge-to-cloud platform. I asked our partner, Nth Generation, to look into the solution, keeping several questions in mind: 

  • Could we move to an OpEx model? We were trying to flatten our spending so we could predictably budget, but that’s easy to say, hard to do. 
  • Would this free my staff to address more important things than server and device management? I want my skilled engineers to focus on higher-value projects, like implementing the CIS Controls. Switching to a platform with managed services could allow my staff to take on more impactful work. 
  • Could the platform ensure the school district’s technology is on the right track? I wanted a platform with longevity to support us in our continuing evolution.
  • How can we find that sweet spot between cloud first, cloud only, and on prem? We use Google for email, collaboration tools, student device management, and it is a key component of our instructional program. The public cloud has become an enormous repository for documents and data, and we also host various systems, including our student information system, there. I don’t want my staff to spend their time managing these systems if they don’t have to—and I also like the idea of still having certain databases and systems on prem. I don’t want to rely on a connection to the outside world for my business intelligence tools to operate. And some of our data involves details of minors, which shouldn’t be anywhere outside our environment.

Our relationship with Nth Generation goes back more than 20 years. By extension, GUHSD has had a relationship with HPE products for just as long. We’ve never had an issue with quality or support, and everything has performed as expected. We looked around at a few other options, but ultimately, we rely on the opinion of experts—and the experts at Nth Generation are the brains behind how we design systems.

Nth Generation agreed that the HPE GreenLake platform would address my questions. Being on-prem but cloud-like would give us the best of both worlds, combining the flexibility to grow with changing technologies and allowing us to budget with predictable costs. The platform had matured enough to support our environment, and we moved ahead with the engagement.

Our instance of the HPE GreenLake platform includes HPE GreenLake for Private Cloud Business Edition and HPE ProLiant DL360 servers for storage and compute in our two data centers, providing optimized performance and capacity. We also secured HPE Managed Services for monitoring, operation, administration, and professional services, which is a massive support layer for my team.

Renewing Our Focus on the Classroom

The implementation could not have gone better. Our HPE GreenLake environment is now where we host our largest and most critical applications. These include our business intelligence tool, Tableau, and our finance system, PowerSchool BusinessPlus, which is critical for normal operations and is where we keep all information for our bond and nutrition programs. These important initiatives contain a lot of data, so we want to store that locally.

The desire to move to an OpEx model was a key driver of this project, but moving to the HPE GreenLake platform was about much more than money. It’s great that we won’t have massive upfront costs at the beginning of a large-scale refresh cycle. Still, it’s hard to compare CapEx to OpEx dollar-for-dollar, and it becomes impossible once you add the value of HPE Managed Services. It’s about the work we can do now that we couldn’t do before.

With HPE Managed Services handling maintenance-related tasks, my team can hone our focus on what really matters: the classroom.

There are several business outcomes the school district expects IT to deliver. One is to provide technological support for in-class interactions between students and educators. In addition to providing students with a Chromebook, we have outfitted every classroom with spare Chromebooks for students who forget to bring or fully charge theirs own. We also equip teachers with devices at their request, from new cameras to multiple-monitor workspaces. In 2023, we replaced every overhead bulb projector in our district with 85-inch touchscreen TVs to ensure images are clear and reliable.

The technologies that support classroom touchpoints need to work all the time. There can be no interruptions, and security is critical to that.

The second business outcome where we focus our efforts is in cybersecurity. The classroom touchpoints are our product, and the technologies that support those interactions need to work all the time. There can be no interruptions, and security is critical to that. My team continues to chip away at those CIS Controls, and our record of uninterrupted service speaks to the quality of controls we have in place. We’ve had DDoS events that nobody knows about, for example, because of the DDoS mitigation we have in place, and we’re pretty proud of that. 

The Flexibility to Address Our Most Pressing Concerns

Of course, physical school safety is always a priority, too. Students who stay home because they’re afraid to go to school don’t get to learn. And a teacher worried about classroom safety probably won’t teach as effectively. My IT department is aligned with GUHSD’s goals of supporting a positive school culture, ensuring students’ and staff’s emotional and physical safety, and providing intervention when necessary.

GUHSD recently engaged HPE in a proof of concept (POC) to address various security concerns. Some of these concerns—like schoolyard fights—have always been with us. Other threats, like active shooters and human trafficking, are newer. Some of our students have tragically been victims of human trafficking, prompting our school board to task our safety director and my department to find mechanisms to combat this. It’s an enormous challenge for school districts like ours, but it’s a must.

IT departments should align with a school district’s goal of supporting a positive school culture, ensuring students’ and staff’s emotional and physical safety, and providing intervention when necessary.

Our POC investigated solutions that would upgrade our digital security system, allowing us to detect people and activities that should not be on our campuses and alert campus safety personnel, who can then take action. These technologies could potentially allow us to identify individuals involved in altercations, monitor suspicious vehicles that should not be on campus, or spot people strapping on weapons before anything bad happens, when there is still time to intervene.

This POC was a learning exercise that will allow the school district to make educated decisions about the way forward. These measures to enhance school safety would have knock-on effects, too. It would make GUHSD a destination school district, potentially boosting enrollment and revenue, which can improve entire neighborhoods.

The HPE GreenLake platform provides flexibility to expand our architecture as we need it, manage everything through HPE Managed Services, and explore custom-tailored solutions to our most pressing problems.

During an executive partnership with Gartner, I got a great piece of advice: the most essential thing for any project is choosing your integrator wisely. That’s why GUHSD will continue working with HPE to ensure our school district stays top of the class.