Anyone who knows Joe Hill can tell you he is a family man. He and his wife, Lynn, raised their three children to adulthood, all outstanding individuals and respected professionals – two high school educators (Ann and Jim) and a patent attorney (Kay.) And in similar fashion over the past 23 years, Joe raised yet another entity from infancy to flourishing success – an entire technology program for this school division.
On June 30, Joe will retire from his position as Director of Math and Technology for Rockingham County Public Schools. He is the only technology director this county has known. Consider his amazing trek through technology advancements during his past two decades at the wheel.
When Joe first arrived in Rockingham, he stepped in as a math teacher at Turner Ashby High School (1981-83.) At the time, computer technology was young and scarce. But it was there that he got his first taste of an Apple, the Apple IIe variety.
“There were two [Apple computers] in the building – one in the business department and one in the math department. I would routinely borrow the Business Ed one because, in my second year there, I taught a computer programming class. Students shared the two IIe’s and learned to program in BASIC. There must have been around 10-12 Apple IIe’s in the division at that time including a mini-lab at SHS,” he recalls.
He slipped away to Fort Defiance High School to teach math from ’83-’89 then returned when he was selected for a newly created position in Rockingham County Public Schools, Supervisor of Math and Technology. At that point, the number of computers in the division had grown to several hundred, but it was just a hodgepodge of stand-alone machines that schools had bought on their own, Apple IIe’s, Apple IIGS’s, and some Apple-clones, Laser 128’s. It was clear that it was time for a centralized plan, one that would lay out the direction for the future of RCPS technology.
“One of the most significant things I did during that first year was to convene a committee to develop the first RCPS Technology Plan. Some of the people on that first committee still teach with us today, like Sue Weaver and Jeanette Toohey,” Joe remembers.
That committee wrote the following Vision Statement which has been a part of every Tech Plan written since:
Rapid advancements in technology are present in all aspects of society. In order to effectively integrate technology into the teaching/learning process, it is imperative that Rockingham County Public Schools provide abundant access to technology and training for staff and students. A variety of technological tools should be an integral part of the teaching-learning environment in all disciplines. To this end, computers and other technologies should be:
Funded and promoted as a significant tool for management and instruction
Accessible to all students throughout the instructional program.
Utilized at an optimal level by staff and students.
With bold adjectives like “abundant” and “significant” and “optimal” describing use, Joe realized he would need a staff numbering more than just one, namely himself. He knew that tools in the hands of teachers and students would only be effective if there were support readily available, both technical and training.
Having been a successful high school tennis coach in his earlier teaching days in Morgantown, WV, Joe knew the value of encouraging good players to his team. Recruiting, of sorts. So he lured Kym Garber away from her job at Connecting Point, a local business selling and servicing Apple products, to join him as his first technology family member, a Computer Resource Specialist (CRS). She had technical skills that would be needed and just as importantly, a terrific manner in working with people – a perfect fit for his plan and, in his words, “a great hire” to start his new technology family. (A few years later, he would continue to cherry pick from Connecting Point, bringing over Nevin Diener, who Joe once described as someone who could network a toaster. Probably true.)
More than just making purchase decisions for the division, Joe ventured out trying new things in order to expand the vision for use.
“In that first year I also got my first look at networks as we purchased a networked Mac lab for the TAHS Business Ed department. Faye Curl, whom I had shared the Apple IIe with in 1981-83, was still an Apple fan and wanted her business lab to be the first one networked in the division. The networked Mac+’s had no hard drive!”
Not long afterward, the big picture got bigger and the task of networking each school began. The project involved laying miles and miles of Ethernet cable within schools and administrative buildings and remains the single largest project in his tenure. In March of 1994, Plains Elementary became the first school in Rockingham with a local area network (LAN) in place. After LANs were in place, the WAN (wide area network) followed where all buildings were connected to the Central Office then out to the world – the advent of the Internet for RCPS.
All the while, Joe’s staff continued to grow as hardware and software deployment increased and support needs exploded. A full nine years before the Virginia Department of Education figured out it was a good idea to hire teachers as technology trainers, Joe already had two of them on staff as he enlisted former high school teachers, Bryan Daniels and Stephanie Failes, to be Technology Instructional Specialists in 1996. Rockingham was among the first divisions to employ full-time technology trainers. It was not until 2005 that the VDOE mandated that divisions hire a similar training position, Instructional Technology Resource Teacher (ITRT), to provide training assistance to school divisions and Joe hired six new trainers that year.
That same 2005 mandate also commanded divisions to hire the requisite number of technical support staff members (CRS) based on student enrollment. No surprise, Joe already had a full slate of Computer Resource Specialists on staff. But as demand routinely exceeds supply when it comes to technical support in a division with over 13,000 users, Joe welcomed the opportunity to grow the CRS staff then, too.
Fast forwarding to today, the technology family stands at 28 in number and recently spawned a new branch, the Department of Information Management, which maintains the student information system. It is headed by a 2000 hire of Joe’s, Dr. Oskar Scheikl, and includes an early member of Joe’s CRS staff, too, Denell Clem. The two branches work in tandem to support teachers and staff with electronic grading, attendance, reporting, and a myriad of other tasks.
Upon Joe’s retirement, Oskar (Director of Information Management) will assume oversight of the entire technology operation. Kevin Perkins, an ITRT on staff, will step up as Supervisor of Technology to assist Oskar.
“It is very reassuring to know that my duties are being assumed by such excellent educators,” said Joe. “Both are former classroom teachers who have amassed tremendous technical knowledge which makes them each a great fit for their new positions. Most importantly, Oskar and Kevin understand that the power of instructional technology is dependent not just on what you purchase but how well the end user can do what he needs to do with it. RCPS is very fortunate to have these two guys!”
Throughout RCPS classrooms, there are signature “Joe Hill” ideas in place almost anywhere we look. Early on, he recognized the educational value of a digital projector in a classroom to share a single computer’s screen with an entire class. Knowing it was too expensive to outfit every teacher with one at the time, he devised a portable cart system that could be shared among classrooms in a school. He used funds to outfit each school with several of these carts, then schools quickly realized the potential and purchased more themselves – a wheeled cart, MacBook (laptop), projector, DVD/VCR, speakers, cables, adapters, and even Velcro and wire ties to secure it all properly. The idea was so popular that Fred Kennon, then Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, offhandedly named the multimedia carts “Hill on Wheels.” The name sticks to this day!
With increased enrollment and the onset of new school construction in Rockingham, Joe seized the opportunity to work with architects on a classroom design that would not only include new technologies but as importantly, make these tools convenient and readily available for teachers to use in their everyday instruction. Beginning with Cub Run Elementary School, all new classrooms included ceiling-mounted projectors, wall-mounted interactive whiteboards (SMART, the predominant brand of choice in RCPS), document cameras, and DVD combo players with everything wired and ready to go at the press of a button. His highly successful design has been replicated in every new building since, including the newest, East Rockingham High School.
With the new constructions came an unanticipated benefit, too, according to Joe.
“I really think that the opening of the three new schools, more than anything else, has spurred the purchase and use of technology in this school division. Other schools didn’t want to be behind the new ones so they invested their own efforts and funds toward this and the idea has spread.”
The technology and maintenance staffs continue to support the schools’ efforts to retrofit classrooms using this same model that has been immensely successful in the newest schools. Currently, over 75% of all RCPS classrooms have some or all these new technologies permanently installed.
Another “Joe Hill” initiative unique to Rockingham is the long-standing implementation of a middle school technology curriculum required of all students in the county. Middle school students learn current productivity applications, keyboarding, and study social and safety issues regarding appropriate Internet use as part of the curriculum.
“As far as I know, we’re the only school division which does this, but I think it’s one of the most successful things we’ve done,” Joe reflects.
Over the years, Joe admits that his role has changed drastically. As Director of Math and Technology, he has been known in recent years to quip that he wears two hats for the county – one, a sombrero (technology) and the other, a beanie (math.)
“Believe it or not, at first I spent half of my time with math and half with technology. I’d visit classrooms, observe teachers, etc. Regrettably that has changed.”
Changes happened largely due to added responsibilities handed to technology directors by the VDOE to ensure that an ambitious schedule of online Standards of Learning (SOL) testing could occur, and occur smoothly, throughout the year. Rockingham met the challenge and now tests online in grades 3-12. Over the years, the VDOE has provided increased money for infrastructure enhancements and hardware purchases to facilitate its testing goal.
“Thanks to the testing initiative, our budget has increased. And, most of all, our tech staff has grown. The online testing initiative has really changed all of our roles. We have over 4,500 computers on our network now and a vast majority of them have been purchased with money from the testing initiative.”
More money from the state equals more spending which translates into aggressive vendors wanting RCPS’s business. Joe readily admits he will not miss the badgering phone calls from vendors and the mountain of email he receives and sends – an average of 150 per day INCLUDING weekends.
And he certainly will not miss the minutiae of the paperwork required to secure federal e-rate funding. This funding provides reimbursement to school divisions for a percentage of their telecommunications expenditures and represents a large chunk of money coming back to RCPS, so it is extremely important. With it often comes unpredictable frustrations.
Joe, always the mathematician and known for being attentive to and extremely careful with details, was shocked one year to learn that his e-rate application had been rejected. Why? No, there were no problems with the numbers, of course. He had used a BLACK, not BLUE, ink pen to sign the paperwork. And rest assured, the application indicated NOWHERE that blue ink was required! He resubmitted the paperwork, this time with a blue signature, and recalls vividly today that the situation took several stressful months to straighten out with the federal government.
And meetings. He won’t miss those late evenings that always seemed to follow especially exhausting days in the office. As he begins in the fall as a full-time instructor at Bridgewater College, he will shed the committee work, vendor calls, long meetings, and mountain of paperwork and get back to sharing what we all know to be a special gift, his ability to teach.
“I will just be charged with doing what I enjoy doing the most – teaching. I will have four classes each semester including one I’ve taught part-time for 15 years: Math Methods for Prospective Elementary Teachers. My other classes will include supervision of student teachers and practicum students so I will be back in schools a good bit, I hope.”
What WILL he miss when he leaves Rockingham?
“More than anything else I will miss the wonderful staff I work with daily. I can’t offer enough compliments about this group. What I value from them is not only their technological expertise but also the camaraderie we’ve had working as a team. I will definitely miss this team spirit,” he said.
What will everyone miss about Joe?
Beyond his leadership, ingenuity, vision, and even his wonderful quick wit, quite simply, we will miss the most genuinely kind person any of us have ever met. He guided this technology program’s maturation like he would his own family. In fact, he made us feel we WERE his family.
Looking back at his career and his incredible impact on RCPS and its people, it seems natural to dub Joe Hill “the father of Rockingham technology.”
Thank you and best wishes, Joe. You will be sorely missed.
By Stephanie Failes, RCPS Technology Instructional Specialist