Trivalent Brings Technology To Navajo

June 27, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — For nearly four years, Trivalent Systems Group Chief Technology Officer Ken Brower has spent a great deal of his time in Navajo country.

On rotating two-week intervals, he trades the CTO hat for that of director of educational technology at Rehoboth Christian Schools in Gallup, N.M.

Before its merger with Trivalent, Remex Systems Group improbably became the leading provider of educational technology solutions in McKinley County, the nation’s third poorest county. It has helped implement technology upgrades throughout the district and community — overseeing an influx of computer use in both the schools and in the community, along with raising the Navajo Code Talker Communications Center — all far from its traditional geographic range and where few service providers, technology or otherwise, would seek to tread.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever been to New Mexico, but we’re pretty much in the middle of nowhere,” Brower said.

In 2000, Rehoboth Christian Schools received a $400,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, part of a $4.4 million grant administered by Grand Rapids-based Christian Schools International for urban Chicago Christian and New Mexico schools.

With no qualified technology providers within thousands of miles, the school contacted West Michigan IBM consultant Bode Sneller. On a different career path decades ago, Sneller, then a Calvin College graduate student, had done his student teaching there.

The school is largely supported by the Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, and through that Sneller retained contact.

His role at IBM didn’t fit the school’s needs, so he gave a call to one of his customers, Remex.

“He asked me if I’d do him a little favor, some network work for a school of his,” Brower said. “He basically conned me into coming down here to help him with the infrastructure components.”

When Brower first met with the school administrators and evaluated their current technology plan, he suggested an entirely different direction, which they adopted.

Since then, the 100-year-old school system’s technology has gone from nonexistent to a network with file sharing, e-mail, and remote access.

Using thin client technology — low-cost, centrally managed computers devoid of hard drives and non-essential applications — the school was able to put more PCs into the classroom for the same budget.

“We were completely evaluating how we approach technology,” said Superintendent Ron Donkersloot. “Knowing that we had a very limited budget, (thin client) enabled us to use a lot of our existing computers and not have to buy a whole new set of computers.

“Initially, that was the biggest change on campus. All of a sudden we had more computers. Students could e-mail each other and ask teachers questions. Then, this whole business of being able to allow students to access homework from home.”

The school even worked to provide students access from their home by giving families older, but not obsolete, computers that could remotely access the network.

“But some of our students live on very outlying areas of the reservation and don’t even have phone lines,” Donkersloot said. “That has been less effective for them.”

In the past year, Rehoboth finished construction of a new middle school and the Navajo Code Talker Communications Center.

The surviving Code Talkers, famous for their covert communication skills during World War II, attended the dedication of the center, which includes a library, media center, state-of-the-art meeting space with theater and a museum.

“It’s really changed over past few years,” Donkersloot said. “Now, we have three computer labs on campus (at the elementary, middle and high schools) and we’re continually upgrading our thin clients.

“We’re maximizing our system in a way that we never thought we could afford.”

The educational market is nothing new for Trivalent. As Remex, the company has worked to integrate technology within local schools for over 30 years. The administrative outsourcing is another common service for the company.

Besides the location, Rehoboth is unique because it is the first time the company has been asked to help develop curriculum on such a large scale.

Recently, the school was the shared recipient of a second Gates grant, $1 million to expand services throughout the Red Rock Coalition, a collaboration between Rehoboth and the 12 other school districts in the county.

“My job has been to work with these schools and looking at how they can take the next step of using technology in the classroom,” said Brower.

“We’re working to share Ken’s expertise on some of the things we’ve been doing,” said Donkersloot.

The coalition unites the county’s public and private schools on a shared platform for both technology and curriculum.

Most of the grant money will not be spent at Rehoboth; instead, it is earmarked to foster the collaboration between the schools and find solutions to shared problems — both in the classroom and community.    

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