Farrah Jernigan – Hallettsville Independent School District
It’s always been home to Farrah Jernigan and she can’t imagine anywhere else she could be.
She knows the streets, stores, courthouse square and homes of Hallettsville, Texas. “The City of Hospitality,” as it’s called, is where she and her husband are raising their family and rooting for the Hallettsville High School Brahmas on Friday nights come each fall.
Jernigan looks upon the Hallettsville Independent School District as home, too. For 14 years, she’s either been teaching math or implementing the technology to ensure learning and safety as CTO.
Though she may not have anticipated an IT leadership role when embarking on her education career, she always knew where she wanted to be and why.
“We have a very family focused and oriented environment here,” Jernigan says. “We want to enable all staff to be the best version of themselves so they can focus on doing what is best for our students. Every staff member—maintenance, food service, transportation, auxiliary, instructional support, teachers and administration—has a role in developing our students and is passionately committed to help students achieve both educational and personal excellence.”
Where the heart is
Nestled in a regional triangle formed by Houston, Austin and San Antonio, with a population of about 2,600, Hallettsville was founded in 1831, before the Lone Star Republic gained its independence in 1836.
The Hallettsville Independent School District has about 1,100 students from pre-K to 12th grade attending one elementary school, one middle school and one high school.
In its first full foray into tech in 2008, Hallettsville schools implemented a 1:1 device program, providing MacBooks to students in grades 5-12. While the program was half-funded by the state, it wasn’t sustainable because the MacBooks were too expensive to replace as needed. Since then, the district has shifted to a mix of Apple and Windows devices for in-class only use at all grade levels.
“The variety is crucial to success. Students using a breadth of devices are better trained for the real world,” Jernigan says. “Our students can pick up these tools and create quality products like films, presentations, websites or coding projects quickly and easily.”
Hallettsville schools have not abandoned the 1:1 approach, though—she says version 2.0 will supply Chromebooks to high schoolers in January 2021.
Everyone keeps learning
At the outset of 2020, before pandemic became a household word, Jernigan was overseeing internet improvements to increase bandwidth and access points and improve network security. As the work progressed, COVID-19 arrived. Before schools closed for several weeks, Jernigan and a team of administrators surveyed parents to determine what was available for students at home for virtual study.
With tools including Google Classroom and Seesaw for pre-K and kindergarten students, Jernigan knew content could be delivered. She and her team of technology coaches trained teachers to create and deliver high quality virtual lessons.
When Hallettsville schools reopened in August, Jernigan estimates nearly 94 percent of students returned to class. The rest opted for virtual learning.
Once summer break was over, teachers commenced with additional training, which helped them further create meaningful digital lessons. What Jernigan loved was how staff went beyond their training to find new ways to use technology.
“It’s not easy, and what we found is the students at home required more assistance and hand-holding,” she says. “Virtual teaching makes it difficult to read the room and see who’s having trouble understanding concepts. Our community also has areas that are limited in connectivity, but this is a problem that many in rural Texas struggle with.”
As much as it means to have a strong IT network in the face of a pandemic, Jernigan is equally as proud of how Hallettsville schools and local police are linked to ensure safety.
The installation of a new antenna on the city’s water tower links schools and police with the push of a button on the Motorola radios used by school administrators that are directly connected to dispatchers and police radios. The district also uses COPsync, a program linking teachers’ in-class laptops to the police.
“That was a labor of love we completed in collaboration with our tech department, the Hallettsville Police Department and Golden Crescent Communications, provided by funding through a generous grant from the Dickson-Allen Foundation,” Jernigan says. “Once a student walks through the HISD doors they become one of mine and I will do whatever I can to protect them—and this is a project I’m very proud of.”
Teaching the tech
Her teaching experience provides the insights into what technology will work in class. She’s also become quite adept at cultivating teachers as trainers and has developed a solid network of vendors that understand what Hallettsville schools need.
Jernigan earned her bachelor’s in mathematics from the University of Houston-Victoria and began her education career in 2001 teaching high school math at Sacred Heart High School where she’d graduated just a few years before.
In 2006, she shifted to public education, teaching math at Gonzales High School before joining the Hallettsville district in 2007.
“As a math teacher at Sacred Heart, I was one of the first teachers to have a smart board in my classroom and I incorporated digital tools in my math lessons on a daily basis,” Jernigan recalls.
When Hallettsville schools first implemented the 1:1 program, Jernigan was selected as a tech ambassador to enable the implementation by training her colleagues. It opened a door she stepped through swiftly, learning how to repair computers and immersing herself in technology even as she continued to teach.
Jernigan left the classroom, when she became the interim technology director in 2015, then served as a network administrator. In 2017, she was named CTO.
It’s been quite the leap from classroom to CTO, but one she says she made because of her equal love for Hallettsville schools and technology.
“I am motivated to continue to learn and serve the district and its students. In the course of my career, I have had to develop leadership skills and learn how to have tactful, difficult conversations,” Jernigan adds. “I really had to grow a backbone and come out of my shell to speak up for the good of the district. I had to learn how to speak in a way that people would listen.”
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