Rod Houpe: Cleveland Metropolitan School District

Transforming Cleveland schools through leading technological solutions
Written by: 
Matt Dodge
Produced by: 
Joe Atwood

A strong network of technological solutions is a vital part of any organization, especially one with 40,000 students to track.

In his role as chief information officer for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD), Rod Houpe is in charge of coordinating information services for the state’s second largest K-12 school system and the nation’s most impoverished student population. With over 100 schools, CMSD is a $984 million entity that spends approximately $11 million annually on information technology needs alone.

“We’re not focusing only on K-12 education services; we’re also looking at leveraging best practices and becoming a best practices delivery organization,” says Houpe, whose team of 32 IT professionals provides support for CMSD’s 5,000 full-time employees, 2,500 part-time employees and more than 40,000 students.

Houpe’s team is preparing to roll out a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, a $20 million endeavor that will allow the district to control and monitor all human resource and financial functions from one centralized platform.

“We’re transcending the K-12 realm to become a far more business process-oriented organization,” says Houpe. “We are a midsized organization, committed to building our brand through process re-engineering.”

The ERP system is particularly important in Cleveland, where the District’s nationally-recognized reform initiative — known as The Cleveland Plan — is increasing the number of high-performing district and charter schools in Cleveland. With a commitment to investing in and phasing in high-leverage system reforms across all schools, CMSD is progressing on its plan to close and replace failing schools. A new talent strategy shows progress toward CMSD’s goal to attract and retain quality teachers and school leaders to be part of the change in Cleveland.

The independent Cleveland Transformation Alliance, formed to ensure quality education in both public and charter schools in the city, ensures accountability for all taxpayer-funded schools, and the district’s central office now focuses on key support and governance roles by transferring authority and resources to schools.

“Having quality teachers in the classroom, based on teacher performance and student growth is critical and the systems we are developing are designed to support that,” says Houpe. “We need to transcend what typical IT departments do in big-city school districts; we must ask tough questions and probe deeply to understand how educators can and should use data and to improve data in ways that best inform decisions about how to raise student achievement.”

Houpe’s ability to analyze the IT needs of a large, urban K-12 school system with the tools and practices that work in the private sector make him the perfect fit for a school district committed to change.

“From my experience, organizations in general are not used to the IT guy asking questions from a business perspective,” he says.

CEO Eric Gordon made it clear when launching The Cleveland Plan that a primary goal was implementing top-to-bottom, systemic change. That meant transforming the leadership of a traditional K-12 school system into an executive team capable of analyzing complex situations and providing executive leadership, thinking and practices to shape solutions that benefit students. “That’s why he brought me on,” Houpe says.

Starting on the state side

Born on an Air Force base in northern Maine, Houpe grew up in central Ohio, attending colleges in both Ohio and Oklahoma before settling in for a 22-year stint working for various state agencies in the Buckeye State.

A self-described nerd, Houpe started his career as a data librarian and computer operator. Since then, he has long been on the forefront of the newest technological trends, delving into the development side of IT just as computer-based training (CBT) started to take off. In his role with the Ohio Department of Administrative Services (ODAS), Houpe wrote new and modified existing CBT programs, trained new users and provided troubleshooting assistance before moving into the position of network administrator for ODAS.

In 1996, Houpe advanced to the position of local area network (LAN) administrator at ODAS, where he worked to merge disparate networks to foster better communication between state agencies. In this position, Houpe designed a disaster recovery plan for the network, led server and processing solutions projects and managed the department’s server resources and email system.

Houpe spent a year as a systems administrator for the division of ODAS whose function was to provide IT solutions to elected officials. There he worked closely with three Ohio governors before moving to the Ohio Department of Commerce in the position of its deputy chief information officer.

Houpe managed the daily operations of the Department of Commerce’s IT group, including network services, application development, mainframe and midrange operation, a post he held for four years before being promoted to the position of chief information officer in 2004.

In just three years as chief information officer, Houpe created and managed a new IT strategy that increased productivity across nine lines of business, including the implementation of a new licensing tracking system management of a $9.8 million technology budget and revamping of the department’s website.

His role as chief information officer gave Houpe a unique perspective and helped him to better understand how states generate revenue in support of government activities and oversight.

The chief regulatory agency was responsible for generating revenue and regulating numerous entities that dealt with real estate and financial licensing, construction compliance and liquor licensing and sales, to name a few. ““It was a great opportunity to learn how to offer services while generating revenue for the state,” he says.

Houpe’s mid-career pivot into the education sector in 2008 began when he signed on as chief information officer for Columbus City Schools. There, he developed a cloud-based ERP solution that saved the district $12 million with a departure from the traditional approach of an on-premise ERP solution toward a strategy to increase the average resolution time on customer service calls by 5 percent.

Houpe’s subsequent service as IT manager at an Austin, Texas-based public–private utilities firm, preceded his return to Ohio, where he signed on as chief technology officer of CLEVENET, a consortium of 44 libraries in northern Ohio. His success there led to his recruitment by CMSD to become its first chief information officer, a position he has held for the last 16 months.

Houpe’s extensive resume and mix of public and private sector work gives the IT professional a one-of-a-kind perspective on the changing IT industry, a perspective that Houpe said must change with the ever-evolving technology landscape.

“I’m a tech guy, an admitted geek when it comes to my passion for this work, but at the heart of the work is a drive to improve efficiency and leverage proven techniques that work in every successful business,” Houpe says.

New solutions track teacher performance

Less than two years into the job, Houpe is already overseeing major technological improvements throughout Cleveland’s city schools. At a cost of $20 million to CMSD, the implementation of the Workday-brand ERP is the largest of those efforts.

“We’re implementing the SaaS [software as a service] model to move beyond on premise solutions toward a delivery method that more and more companies are considering, based on its success,” he says.

The CMSD IT department and its business partners are now eight months into implementing the new ERP system — not only ahead of schedule, but under budget on what is expected to be an 18- to 24-month plan to implement the core of the ERP solution, expected to go live in January 2017.

Houpe credits supportive stakeholders and project management with current progress toward development of the ERP.

“It’s interesting to see how the owners of each component, from HR to finance, come together with a unified approach,” says Houpe. “Having these teams lead the configuration strategy and design is really refreshing and something you don’t normally see.”

A close relationship with Seattle-based data science specialists Neal Analytics has allowed CMSD to better track student performance. A 2015 finalist for Microsoft partner of the Year, Neal Analytics’ predictive software can analyze test results to determine if students are on track for graduation as early as third grade.

“It provides us with different types of intervention strategies because once they reach 10th grade, it’s too difficult to catch up in two years,” says Curtis Timmons, CMSD’s deputy IT chief.

The analytics software went live in February with help from Microsoft, which helped fund the initiative as part of a proof-of-concept initiative with Neal Analytics. “Neal is very strategic when it comes to data science,” says Timmons. “They have a more agile approach and we’ve been impressed so far.”

CMSD will continue to work with Neal beyond the proof-of-concept stage, with hopes of eventually developing similar analytics software to help track teacher performance.

The school district has also worked with Navigation Management Partners to implement its $20 million Workday implementation. The program will allow CMSD to support its portfolio strategy, increase operational simplicity and school empowerment, enhance customer experience and employee engagement, and induce fiscal and fiduciary responsibility.

"The CMSD Workday program will achieve increased operational effectiveness and efficiencies in business processes enabling focused teaching and learning with flexibility to support future 21st century school initiatives,” says Casey Cramer, sales operations and marketing professional with Navigator Management Partners. The program’s ability to simplify system infrastructure and track data is expected to go a long way in helping CMSD achieve its strategic goals.

As chief information officer, Houpe is also leading the charge to transition the district’s email, business intelligence analytics and communications systems into Microsoft’s cloud-based Office365 platform, which will allow for greater collaboration and information-sharing among users.

“Much more than an email system, we’re talking about collaboration and the development of shared spaces with data analytics leveraging machine learning,” he says. “It’s been successful from an adoption perspective; the users have understood it and it’s been fairly self-driven. We’re able to provide real-time school performance data, as well as predictive analytics about our schools that will change how we’ll engage our senior leadership around the tenants of The Cleveland Plan.”

CMSD is in the process of constructing and renovating more than 40 schools over the next four years, and Houpe’s IT team is involved in almost every step of the process, from the school’s wireless systems to their desktop computers and mobile device implementation plans.

While funding is often an issue for public school systems to maintain or refresh technology, Houpe says the most challenging part of his job is saying no.

“It’s hard to say no to requests for things that people really want, but we have to look at how it is going to help the organization moving forward from a business perspective,” he says. “I’ve learned a new way to say no every day by balancing the wants with the actual needs that tie to our performance goals. Successful implementation requires proper planning with specific milestones to be achieved.”

In CMSD’s IT department, success is measured by concrete metrics, including problem resolution time, network availability, spending and, more traditionally, customer satisfaction. To check in on the last metric, the chief information officer has only to drive to one of the district’s 100-plus schools. “It’s exciting every time I enter a building or a classroom to see what we are providing for our students,” he says.

While Houpe is confident in his IT plan for the CMSD, there are always certain unknowns when it comes to embracing the latest technology.

“What keeps me up at night is the cloud-based mobile strategy we’ve banked on and how to continue the high rate of adoption with a firm belief that we are doing the right thing for our customer base,” says Houpe.

As Houpe settles into his position with the CMSD, he is focused on building a better system that will allow important decisions to be made based on performance-driven metrics and data. “The other goal is collaboration: we have an organization goal of breaking down silos and working more collaboratively than ever before,” says Houpe.

CMSD has a strong leader at the IT helm who is well-versed in using technology and data to drive decisions and improve performance. Given his passion for education, Rod Houpe is in a better position than ever to deliver on the high expectations of the stakeholders he serves in Cleveland. Recognizing the role of a quality education as the pathway to success, his role as CIO is critical to ensuring delivery of The Cleveland Plan promise to prepare the children of Cleveland for success in a 21st century global economy. 

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Cisco
Intellinet Corporation
Microsoft
Navigator Management Partners LLC
Workday