Maribeth Luftglass Runs Her School District Like a Fortune 500 Company
Luftglass manages and implements new tech that meets the needs of more than 400,000 users.
When Maribeth Luftglass became CIO of Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, most people used dial-up internet, mobile phones were still a novelty and Google had just come out of beta.
“I’m a very boring person,” she laughs. “I’ve had the same job for almost 18 years.”
Her job, however, is anything but. Technology has evolved at a rapid clip since 1999—and Luftglass is tasked with keeping pace, managing technology adoption and integration at the same level as most Fortune 500 CIOs. On a regular basis, she’s balancing student, parent and teacher needs and expectations. All while prioritizing investments and staying nimble as new technologies and innovations come her way.
Meeting Diverse Needs with Technology
When Luftglass was hired, the CIO role was new to both her and the district. Back then, she says, the school’s technology infrastructure was divided between mainframe; back-office systems for payroll, finance and HR; and instructional technology. Today these systems are much more integrated, which requires increased communication and coordination between Luftglass and her leadership team.
“It used to be that a teacher could pick a software application for a standalone computer in their classroom, and it didn’t necessarily impact anybody else,” she says. “It now runs across our network and must be integrated with our identity management systems, and we must make sure that it’s compatible with all of our other applications.” And the network is vast, including everything from educational software that gives students access to textbooks, employee payroll management tools and other applications.
Moreover, technology’s integral part in education means that access is a huge priority. Fairfax County now provides mobile Wi-Fi hotspots (“MyFi") so that kids without home internet access can use the same digital resources as their peers.
Luftglass has also helped the district respond to students’ changing needs and habits. Fairfax County schools provide wireless access and support bring-your-own-device (BYOD)—a boon for students and teachers, but an added strain on the network. In addition to the thousands of district devices, Luftglass says that, on any given day, roughly 80,000 students bring their own devices to school.
Investing in Security
Wi-Fi, BYOD and the vast number of network users make data security a top priority and challenge. With limited funding and a growing demand for technology across the district, leadership must come to an agreement around major tech decisions, says Luftglass. Identity management is one area where she and her team have recently directed the district’s resources and attentions.
“As you can imagine, with lots of separate instructional applications, being able to manage accounts for hundreds of thousands of students in each application separately is a big challenge,” she explains.
Image by Donnie Biggs, Fairfax County Public Schools
While many of the applications that Luftglass selects (e.g. digital textbooks) are “walled gardens” that prevent all activity with individuals outside of a school's network, security software is also necessary to keep everyone safe. Through a single sign-on identity management system, students can securely access their lunch card accounts while parents can access grades and homework assignments.
“We have to make sure that the right people have access to the right students’ data,” Luftglass says. “We take that very seriously."
Segmenting the wireless network is another way to ensure security, she adds. Because the community often uses school buildings outside school hours, creating separate public and private networks keeps school and student data safe.
Staying Nimble in a Changing Landscape
Before becoming CIO in Fairfax County, Luftglass was the Director of Technology at the American Red Cross—and the quick-response skills she learned there have lent themselves well to her current role.
“[At the Red Cross] you have to, at a moment's notice, be able to manage and track volunteers, donations, logistics of running a shelter operation and so on,” she recalls. “I worked on a lot of the technology that supported those efforts.”
Today, she says she's “hooked” to her mobile device so she can respond as issues arise, whether during school hours or not. In 2016, for example, Luftglass had to act quickly during the release of Pokémon GO. More than posing a distraction for the kids, the app created a security risk for the school.
Image by Donnie Biggs, Fairfax County Public Schools
“We had people coming into our buildings—strangers who had nothing to do with the school system—because they wanted to get a particular Pokémon that was located in our facility,” she recalls.
The school quickly set up geofencing to disable the app on school grounds.
“You never know, day to day, what new technologies are going to provide you opportunities or challenges,” Luftglass says. “So, this job is actually a lot of fun, but also lots and lots of work.”
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