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How a State E-rate Coordinator Drives Digital Access

Broadband Leader -Mindy Ficus

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Meet Melinda (“Mindy”) Fiscus. She is the current Digital Access Coordinator for the Learning Technology Center of Illinois (LTC) and an Illinois State E-rate Coordinator. Moreover, Mindy serves on several state and national associations such as the State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA) and State E-rate Coordinator Alliance (SECA). She has worked in educational technology for nearly two decades, empowering educators to integrate digital learning in the classroom. Mindy has been an incredible force behind the Illinois Classroom Connectivity initiative, a partnership between the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), the LTC and EducationSuperHighway. We spoke with her about the challenges and triumphs she’s seen in advocating for broadband access across the state for the second installment in our new Broadband Leaders series.

Tell us about your journey – what inspired you to join the Learning Technology Center of Illinois and balance the responsibilities of a State E-rate Coordinator? What excites you the most about your current roles?

I started working with E-rate and Educational Technology grants in 2000; at the time I worked with the Regional Offices of Education for Southern Illinois. As I met with those groups and tried to support educational technology, I was pretty quick to realize that school districts were a bit overwhelmed with the deadlines and requirements of the E-rate program. I’m a very social and collaborative person, so my approach to handling that stress and confusion was to join everyone together to tackle applications as a group.

From facilitating E-rate workshops, I gained more knowledge about the program. When the state decided to group our multiple regional technology centers into one statewide unit and it was determined that [E-rate support] would be a benefit to everyone in the state, I jumped at the chance to do it.

Now traveling the whole state, I’m excited to go from working with 40-50 school districts per year to 200-300 school districts this year. I’m happy to be able to help them wherever they are. We bring in about $100M per year from the federal government to the state of Illinois just in the E-rate program. The way I look at it, the more we can educate people about the program, the more money we can bring into the state to offset the cost of connectivity.

You’ve driven thousands of miles across the state to meet with school district leaders about their broadband upgrades. What do you think are the biggest hurdles for connecting all schools to high-speed Internet?

The first challenge is finding more than one option for a school district, in some areas of the state. Getting service providers to come to the table to bring the Internet to that small town. Even though there might not be any business or industry in that small town, there are still students that need to be served.

Now the focus has kind of shifted for us. We’ve done a pretty good job of bringing providers to the table with help from the Illinois Classroom Connectivity Initiative. Now I’m really focused on the discrepancy of cost and making sure connectivity is affordable for schools. Even if we can get the Internet there, if it’s going to be cost-prohibitive for them to take advantage of it, it still won’t be something that’s achievable for a school district.

We also want to be sure that school districts are getting fair pricing. We revisit contract terms every three to five years in the E-Rate program. It’s really interesting to hear someone who you helped five years ago say, “Oh! I got three bids [on my Form 470/RFP] instead of one!” We used to be excited to have T-1 lines. Then, we were excited to have fiber at any cost. Now, we’re really super excited to have more than one bid to compare. It’s been a progression over the last 20 years.

We’ve seen tremendous progress in Illinois with 96% of schools now meeting minimum connectivity goals. How have you seen the Illinois Classroom Connectivity Initiative impact digital learning and broadband access in the state?

I see way more attention to HOW we can transform learning. A lot of discussions about the environment of the classroom, the curriculum and what practices we take digital. What does blended learning look like? What’s the right fit? We don’t just want to use technology for the sake of using technology, but really as a tool to achieve something new.

I think that as we look forward, we’re going to see more community connections. There is power in students connecting with businesses, organizations and other school districts. When working with community projects teachers are bringing the outside world into their classrooms. They couldn’t do that before. Before they had that kind of connectivity, teachers couldn’t access those online resources, connect with others, and bring an aquarium into their building. We’ve got a lot of schools doing STEM labs and trying out new things that they didn’t before, like Augmented and Virtual Reality. We see lots of pilots to see what online learning can provide, and new willingness to try new things.

The biggest thing the Illinois Classroom Connectivity Initiative has provided for the state is awareness at every level. From superintendents and school boards to state legislators we have seen that building awareness that funding exists and school districts have support with seeking out connectivity has been critical to our progress. You guys (EducationSuperHighway) literally drove across the state and said, “Hey, we’re here.” 852 school districts [in the state of Illinois] is huge. District leaders might not always answer the phone, but they at least know who we are now, and they are aware of the available support and resources.

You are on a number of state and national associations related to E-rate and technology. Who do you turn to for inspiration or support with your work?

SETDA is a great group to be a part of for statewide and national perspectives. This group does a lot of great development in the form of research and papers, conversations, and sharing of best practices from state to state. That’s definitely the group you lean on when you find out there’s new legislation or funding in your state and you’re wondering how best to use these opportunities.

Everyone in SECA “speaks E-rate,” and it’s been really reassuring to have a group of people to go to who are genuinely invested in helping school districts navigate the program and take advantage of the funding.

I also have a great appreciation for CoSN and ISTE and their state chapters like Illinois Computing Educators (ICE) and Illinois Educational Technology Leaders (IETL). These groups speak with students, teachers and tech directors about classroom implementation. They also offer great resources and help with awareness. Strong associations nationwide focus on outcomes for us all. Their goal isn’t to get something from it themselves, but to drive help for the greater good.

Do you have any advice for CIOs, technology leaders, and educators that are looking to advocate for students and teachers in their own states?

My best piece of advice is to talk to school districts. Don’t just assume that you know their situation and that you understand their challenges, but actually collect their stories. There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. We have to be able to think outside the box. For one district it’s getting a provider to come to their town. For another, it’s joining a consortium or helping them to see connectivity as a priority. Understanding what districts are facing creates a better position to learn from them and advocate for them. Each district has real stories that provide more context than what you see in a data report.

In small rural America, sometimes the school district is the heartbeat of that community. For some small towns, the school district is also one of the largest employers. When you can convince a school district that connectivity will create opportunities for their school, you make a difference for their community. I’ve been to lighting ceremonies for small, rural telephone co-ops where the speaker of the day is the man who owns the grain elevator. He shared with the group that they can now get real, up to the minute prices for what the corn or grain is valued at because of the connectivity that came to this community due to this partnership. We are hearing from individuals with the agriculture industry stepping up and saying this connectivity is making a difference for us. They’re able to do GPS mapping of their fields and track crops and chemicals in new ways. This is just one example of how connectivity for schools can benefit multiple industries. I do this work because I am passionate that everyone should be afforded opportunities. And I really think that technology provides that opportunity for all, no matter where you are located.

Stay tuned for the next installment in our Broadband Leaders series, and feel free to connect with us on social media to celebrate K-12 connectivity leaders in your state.

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