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Education for all

Achievement First believes that all children have the right to an excellent education. The network of 37 free, public charter schools in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York welcomes over 15,000 students a year, many from lower-income families. Key to the non-profit organization’s success is optimizing the time and talents of its 2,600 dedicated teachers and staff.

Reducing friction, improving security

When staff complained about having to keep track of passwords for all of their applications—and the wasted time associated with constantly logging in, losing passwords, and resetting credentials—Achievement First began its search for a modern identity solution that would address staff frustration, improve security, and accelerate the organization’s move to the cloud.

Smooth scaling

Achievement First chose the Okta Identity Cloud because of its pre-built integrations, vendor-agnostic approach, and cloud-first approach. The organization first tested Okta with three applications. Since then, it has secured over 140 applications with Okta. That scalability, along with Okta’s powerful security features, would become key to Achievement First’s ability to enable a remote workforce and flexible education delivery.

Rapid provisioning in a time of need

Okta’s value has been demonstrated poignantly during the COVID-19 crisis. Like most school systems, Achievement First needed to rapidly pivot to a virtual learning model that was new for students, families, teachers, and administrators. Thanks to the dedication of its staff, and with a little help from Okta, Achievement First seamlessly deployed Zoom to all teachers within days, launched a new Zendesk instance in an hour, and securely provisioned thousands of take-home Chromebooks for students.

IT, productivity, and security savings

Even before the pandemic hit, Achievement First logged an estimated $1.1 million in annual benefits thanks to Okta: implementing Okta Universal Directory reduced LDAP infrastructure maintenance costs, for example, and Okta Lifecycle Management enabled increased productivity through accelerated provisioning and deprovisioning resulting in more than 10,000 combined hours saved for IT and users per year. The additional benefits of pivoting quickly to remote work and reducing the risk of a data breach are truly invaluable.

We have over 140 cloud-based applications integrated into Okta. That just shows the value that Okta brings not only to the IT team, but also to other teams like human resources and finance.

Marques Stewart, Senior Director, Achievement First

Supporting people in a non-profit environment

Achievement First believes that all children, regardless of race or economic status, can succeed if given access to a great education. The organization’s goal is to deliver that education in a barrier-free environment—no admission test and no tuition fees. Just rigorous learning delivered with expertise and compassion.

The organization began in 1999 with the opening of a single public charter school in New Haven, Connecticut, serving 84 fifth and sixth grade students. Achievement First has since grown into a thriving network of 37 K-12 schools in Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island, serving over 15,000 students, many from lower-income households. 

As a non-profit organization, it’s crucial that Achievement First optimizes all aspects of its operations, including the time and skills of its 2,600 teachers and staff members. Never has that been truer than during the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic required a rapid pivot to virtual learning, calling on the flexibility and commitment of both staff and students.

“The most important resource that a non-profit has are its people, people who are dedicated to its mission, people who understand the desires and goals of the company and are going to stick with you even in times of chaos,” says Marques Stewart, Senior Director, Network and SaaS Operations at Achievement First.

“But those people are not infinite,” he continues. “And anything that we can take off their plate and automate or systematize allows them to devote their time to providing better experiences for the students, in-person or virtually.” 

Stewart is responsible for improving Achievement First’s network infrastructure, developing forward-looking technology initiatives, ensuring a secure environment, and controlling technology costs as the organization moves toward the cloud. So when staff members voiced a recurring frustration with their technology setup a few years ago, the IT organization began searching for a solution. 

The result of that search not only eased those particular staff concerns, it would pave the way for a workplace and educational transformation no one saw coming.

Finding a frictionless user experience

Achievement First’s search for an identity solution was prompted by one particular issue. “Our staff was informing us, time and time again, that they were tired of having to remember 20+ different passwords for their 20+ different business applications,” Stewart says. “So initially we went looking for a single sign-on solution.”

While the primary goal was to find an identity solution, Stewart and the Achievement First leadership team recognized that boosting security would also become more important in the years to come. Any identity solution would have to include robust security features to ensure the organization stayed ahead of the curve. 

Budget was also a factor. Achievement First was already moving toward cloud-based IT infrastructure, and anything it could do to streamline that transition while reducing overall IT costs would be an advantage.

The organization was using LDAP, an on-prem directory solution that it wanted to move away from if possible. As the IT team evaluated available cloud-first identity options, including OneLogin, they quickly recognized Okta as the only best-of-breed identity solution and a perfect fit for Achievement First’s overall IT vision. Okta promised ease of integration, robust security and automation, and an overall seamless user experience.

“It was obvious that Okta would help us lessen our reliance on on-premise infrastructure,” Stewart says. “One of the other things that I appreciate about Okta is the fact that it’s pretty much vendor-agnostic. It doesn’t care if you're working with Office365, G Suite, iCloud, or whatever. It's just like, ‘Hey, we just want to work with everyone.’”

The Okta Integration Network had pre-built integrations with the applications Achievement First was already using. “Working with everyone also allows Okta to have instructions that are easy to follow for standing up a new platform,” he continues. “It was the right and most obvious solution for our needs.”

Making employees’ lives easier—and much more

Achievement First purchased Okta in the fall and were ready to roll it out to the entire staff by January. 

They started slowly, implementing Okta Single Sign-On with three applications: G Suite, WebEx, and Office 365. “We wanted to make sure employees understood Okta and had a really easy, seamless experience from the beginning,” says Stewart. “At that time, people were hesitant like, ‘What is this Okta thing that we're supposed to be using to integrate to all these other platforms?’”

“So when we started off with three applications, we set it up so that we could prove Okta’s value pretty quickly to those folks who aren’t as tech savvy or tech forward as an IT team necessarily would be.”

That first, cautious rollout allowed Stewart and his team to test the waters and get the implementation details correct. But Stewart was already looking ahead.

“I did have this bucket of wish list applications that I would want to connect to,” he remembers. “And today? We have over 140 cloud-based applications integrated into Okta. That just shows the value that Okta brings not only to the IT team, but also to other teams like human resources and finance.” 

Throughout its partnership with Okta, Achievement First has implemented a number of Okta’s Workforce Identity products. Lifecycle Management is used across the organization to streamline and automate the user provisioning and deprovisioning processes. Okta also helps accelerate the organization’s cloud-first journey—Universal Directory to alleviate the reliance on LDAP and on-prem servers. Lastly, Single Sign-On and Multi-Factor Authentication simplify the log-in process and make working from different locations and devices more secure. 

Flexibility in a fast-changing learning landscape

In March 2020, Stewart and his team received news that the Achievement First schools, like so many others, had to quickly move to remote education due to COVID-19. They had to think and act quickly; Stewart credits Okta for helping to facilitate a relatively smooth and secure transition. 

“The first thing that we had to think about was what we were going to do to connect teachers with students so they could continue lesson planning and teaching,” Stewart says. 

Achievement First was not yet a Zoom customer but, coincidentally, Stewart had been testing the platform just that month. The pilot ended abruptly and full-scale adoption began. “I worked with maybe 10 to 20 people on our IT and data teams for basically four days to deploy Zoom to all 2,600 members of our staff, with the right provisioning,” he says. “That's something that just would not have been possible without Okta.”

“Had this been in the days before Okta,” Stewart continues, “we would’ve had to manually provision and create each of those accounts. But it took us just a couple of days to get things going and work out some of the kinks. Then we could turn to our teachers and say, ‘Now, you can start teaching,’ well before they thought that they were going to be able to. That was huge.” 

The next step was setting up its 15,000 students with Chromebooks that they could take home—and then finding a way to support them without overwhelming the IT team. “We had to stand up a Zendesk instance that was focused on families and students,” Stewart says. The new Zendesk instance was purchased, provisioned, and ready to roll out within an hour.

“Then, boom, we were ready to go,” Stewart says. “That was useful for not only providing support for our families, but also for saving the sanity of our IT team that wasn’t built to provide direct support to 15,000 students.”  

Securely enabling remote work

The other key part of the pandemic-driven pivot was ensuring that remote learning and working could be done securely. Again, Stewart and his team turned to Okta—this time using ThreatInsights

“All our staff members are now primarily working from home. They're no longer within the confines of the network organization the majority of the week,” he says. “And during a time of confusion, bad actors try to take advantage of that.”

“Before Okta, if someone told us their account was compromised, we would have no way to know with 100% certainty that their account was actually compromised. ThreatInsights allows us to pinpoint exactly when a person's account is compromised,” Stewart continues. “For example, if we see that at 12:00 you were logged in from New Haven, Connecticut and then at 12:15 you were logging in from London, England, your account was compromised. We don't have to ask any questions. It speeds up our remediation time and reduces the negative impact of any breach.”  

That visibility—as well as Okta’s flexibility and scalability—has been a lifesaver. “These tools were really helpful in this sea of chaos that we’re all living in, in terms of really allowing us to not only continue our educational focus, which is our core mission, but also to keep supporting our staff and families as they work in this new environment.”

Quantifying security and productivity improvements

Even before the disruption caused by COVID-19, Okta was a resounding success among employees—and that has only deepened . “When we first implemented Okta, we had to go to people and beg them, ‘Please let us integrate your system so that we can make your life a little bit easier!’” Stewart says. “Now teams are coming to me with their platforms and saying, ‘Can you please connect this to Okta so that we don't have to worry about user account creation and all that kind of stuff?’’

From a financial perspective, Okta has proven its return on investment. In late 2019, Achievement First worked with Okta on a Business Value Assessment (BVA) to quantify the value of Okta to the organization, ensure strategic goals were being met, and to assess future priorities and areas for optimization. The goal was to measure ROI across three key areas: IT costs, productivity, and security. 

The implementation of Okta’s Universal Directory reduced hardware maintenance and administrator costs when compared to LDAP server maintenance. In addition, Lifecycle Management alleviated the administrative burden associated with provisioning and deprovisioning through automation. Together, these products are responsible for some $600,000 in annual benefits. 

“We’re now more consistent with user provisioning,” says Stewart. “We have a systematized platform that saves us hours upon hours by not doing all this stuff manually.” 
  
Single Sign-On and Multi-Factor Authentication have facilitated remote work through any device, with access to applications anywhere. These features have also all but eliminated lost passwords and password resets for an estimated annual productivity benefits of $158,000 from more than 5,000 hours saved—an amount calculated before Achievement First moved to virtual learning. 

“We have really passionate, powerful people that are focused on the mission, whether they're teachers, volunteers, or other end users, and we’re making sure that they're as productive as possible and aren't getting locked out of applications,” says Stewart. “Especially now, our distributed workforce needs to be able to quickly login and authenticate in a secure and easy-to-use way.” 

And by reducing the likelihood of an expensive security breach for the business thanks to consistent Single Sign-On, Multi-Factor Authentication, Lifecycle Management and increased visibility through central reporting mechanisms, Achievement First realized another $385,000 in annual risk avoidance benefits. 

The future is supercharged

Stewart looks ahead to further scaling up with Okta as the Achievement First network grows, both through students served and best-of-breed applications used. “Okta will be the IAM platform for our future growth,” Stewart says. “We will continue on our move toward the cloud, and continue to find ways to increase efficiency, productivity, and security in all areas.”

Top of mind is tackling the many challenges presented by a remote learning landscape. “I’m excited about the new Okta Verify app and how that might help us in this new environment,” says Stewart. “How do we increase our security in this new remote environment, while at the same time alleviating some of the pressure on our IT support team to deploy equipment without having to manually touch it? That's one of our main focuses for the next year.”

In the end, the key to Okta’s success across the Achievement First organization is its ease of use.

“The most important thing for us, for all the staff, is that Okta is not cumbersome,” Stewart says. “It’s not getting in the way of them being able to accomplish something, even as the landscape under them shifts. It's at the least easing a process that they have pain with, and at best it’s supercharging something that they want to do.”

About Achievement First

Achievement First is a growing network of non-profit, high-performing, college-preparatory, K-12 public charter schools in Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island. The organization’s mission is to deliver on the promise of equal educational opportunities for all children in the United States. Achievement First believes that all children, regardless of race or economic status, can succeed if they have access to a great education.