Bob Fishtrom – Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District
- Written by: David Harry
- Produced by: Matthew Warner
- Estimated reading time: 5 mins
In the backyard of the tech industry, one California school district’s tech is undergoing a huge transformation.
From the fiber and Wi-Fi connections making a network possible to the laser projectors making learning vivid, Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District is upping its game with the guidance of an IT veteran who’s focused on tomorrow.
“I want to instill my vision by not taking shortcuts,” says Director of IT Bob Fishtrom who is leading the technology initiatives. “We need to invest time in research and training to make sure we’re going the distance and building for the future.”
A fresh look
Headquartered in Mountain View and serving about 4,400 students, MVLA has two comprehensive high schools, an alternative high school, an adult education center, the Freestyle Academy for Arts & Technology and Middle College.
It’s a diverse and well-funded district serving communities that are home to companies including Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Intuit and Synopsys, and its high schools are commonly ranked in the top 1 percent nationally, the MVLA website notes.
There’s certainly no dearth of tech in the district or its communities, and MVLA has a “bring your own device” approach to digital learning that’s augmented by providing about 2,000 Chromebooks to students in need.
Fishtrom and Superintendent Nellie Meyer both joined the district at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year and share a goal of improving technology resources and access for all. First came a thorough diagnostic assessment by Portola Systems Inc., Fishtrom says. Then he and Portola Systems designed a plan to improve the district’s IT infrastructure, including a complete network and systems overhaul.
“Technology needs to support instruction, maintenance, business and operations,” Fishtrom summarizes.
Bumps in the road
Still, there have been the inevitable hiccups—Fishtrom knew the district was vulnerable to a ransomware attack and was ready to deploy new malware protection software to avoid one when, in January, it happened.
The attack may have had its beginnings a month earlier, he adds, and it shut down district phones although the network and email services remained operational.
In recovering from the attack, MVLA migrated to a cloud-based phone system as well as implementing what Fishtrom calls “a full forklift of legacy system” improvements, including all network equipment, servers and domain controllers.
But the challenges weren’t over. As the district network was regaining its health, a pandemic was working its way across the Pacific Ocean. By mid-March, the district was sending staff, teachers and students home, forcing Fishtrom’s team into high gear to make sure e-learning could occur.
Equipped for e-learning
MVLA distributed 145 MacBook Pros and 50 Dell notebook computers to staff so they could teach remotely. It also established a partnership with T-Mobile’s EmpowerED program to supply 125 mobile hotspots, or “Mi-Fi,” to staff and students, then obtained 100 more from Sprint’s 1Million Project. The district also worked with Comcast to make sure families lacking high-speed internet could get it at a reduced or no cost.
“Distance learning creates great challenges,” Fishtrom says. “The playing field is far from level. Providing Google resources and Chromebooks is essential to ensure all students have access to the curriculum. However, if a student does not have a good internet connection at home, distance learning is nearly impossible.”
During the pandemic, Fishtrom and his team are also implementing Canvas, a learning management system that is becoming the foundation for instruction by managing workloads, assignments and grading, all while integrating platforms such as Zoom for online instruction.
MVLA is also putting in place TIPWeb-IT, a comprehensive asset-tracking system from Hayes Software Systems that allows the district to manage assets, check devices out to staff and students, and create reports that include expiration dates. The system allows the district to plan better for technology needs while being fiscally responsible, Fishtrom says.
Sound + vision
In July, the MVLA Board of Trustees voted to continue distance learning when schools reopen, but when students and staff eventually return to campus, they’ll enjoy improvements in what they see and hear.
Fishtrom and his staff are now installing Airtame wireless projection devices to complement new laser projectors in classrooms. Airtame devices can be controlled by teachers’ or students’ devices. The new projectors deliver images clearly enough that shades don’t need to be drawn for viewing.
That’s a plus, and the bonus comes because the projectors require little maintenance while lasting as long as a decade, unlike bulb projectors which last about five years while frequently needing new bulbs and filters.
Staff and students will also be able to hear better in class with new audio systems from LightSpeed Technologies, delivering sound evenly throughout the room, Fishtrom says.
“That tends to be overlooked,” he says. “Traditional, amplified audio does not distribute sound equally, making it difficult for students in the back of the classroom to hear.”
Knowing what’s needed
A native of Redwood City, California, Fishtrom earned a bachelor’s in history from San Francisco State University in 1993 and added a teaching credential in social studies from Notre Dame de Namur University in 1995.
When he started teaching in the Sequoia Union High School District in Silicon Valley, the internet and tech were beginning to emerge as learning tools.
In 2002, Fishtrom’s career shifted when he earned his M.A. in Education, Instructional Technologies, from SFSU and accepted the position of instructional technology specialist for Sequoia Union. He later became an administrator at Carlmont High School in the same district, where he spent six years as a vice principal.
His success continued when he was named director of instructional technology for the district in 2013, a position he held until joining MVLA.
Fishtrom says he’s enjoyed the tremendous support of Superintendent Nellie Meyer and his immediate supervisor, Associate Superintendent Mike Mathiesen. He also recognizes that the changes underway could not occur without the full support of the MVLA board of trustees. However, he supplies his own drive.
“My family instilled in me a solid work ethic,” Fishtrom says. “I don’t like complacency. I want to do what’s best for students. Doing what’s right by students is doing right by staff as well.”
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