Agora Cyber Charter School

Agora Cyber Charter School thwarts cyber attacks with a layered security approach from Microsoft Gold Partner,
Forsyte I.T. Solutions

Established in 2005, Agora Cyber Charter School has been committed to the success of its students, staff, and faculty since day one. Under the guidance of CEO, Dr. Michael J. Conti, Agora continues to lead with vigor and determination to not only support their students in classroom learning, but also to protect them online with a secure digital environment.

Agora is a cyber charter school in the state of Pennsylvania where education is delivered mainly through the internet. Seventy-five percent of Agora’s students engage in live online classrooms everyday with teachers on the other side of the computer. Agora provides a traditional K-12 public school education model in an environment that supports a wide array of learning styles and accommodations.

As you can imagine, the extensive cyber environment and IT network within Agora Cyber Charter School is massive. Protecting such an IT infrastructure is something that Agora doesn’t take lightly. Under the direction of CTO, Michael J. Rublesky III and supported by Assistant Director Taylor Thompson and System Admin Joseph Coladonato, Agora has been a front-runner in information protection, cybersecurity, and privacy for its faculty, staff, and students since 2017. As cyber threats increase and breaches across industries are announced, Agora understands that cybersecurity remain top of mind.

As a school that supports and encourages out-of-the-box thinking with its students, it also encourages out-of-the-box solutions within its information security administration. Rublesky is focused on keeping Agora’s IT environment protected by implementing the best solutions available, updating systems, and consistently monitoring to achieve the top level of security the school demands.

The journey for Agora Cyber Charter School and Forsyte I.T. Solutions began in the Fall of 2017 when Forsyte lead a security discussion at an IU13 event in Lancaster PA. IU13 is an educational service agency dedicated to delivering services to school districts and communities across Pennsylvania.

At the event, Rublesky explained that Agora was 100% Google prior to his joining the team in 2017 and was looking to create a more trusted Microsoft environment. At that time, Enterprise used Outlook client with Google sync and G Suite. There was no Microsoft infrastructure outside of the local Microsoft Office Pro installs at Agora. Forsyte discussed ways that Agora could increase its overall security posture and reduce its operating costs. Agora already owned a majority of the tools within Office 365 Security Stack and was anxious to flip the switch from Google to Microsoft, discontinuing the 3rd party AV Webroot, and move exclusively to Microsoft defender + ATP. 

 

Trusted Microsoft Gold Partner

Known as a forward-thinking internet technology company, Forsyte I.T. Solutions was selected as Agora’s trusted Microsoft partner based on their shared vision for a strong security posture, Microsoft solutions expertise, and unwavering determination to see it through. Once hired, Forsyte went to work in assessing the current IT environment to understand where Agora’s security concerns. Agora was eager to implement a full complement of security-focused solutions to protect the data and identities of its student body, staff, and faculty.

Forsyte architected a cloud environment using Microsoft technology and its Microsoft co-created phishing solution, called Phish Hunter, to protect, detect, and remediate cyber-attacks in the Agora environment. The experience has been one of extensive control and granularity.

 

PhishHunter

PhishHunter is designed to detect user accounts that have been compromised by using a customizable threat detection engine to monitor user logins and identify anomalies, including risky logins and risky actions. Built on Microsoft technology and hosted in Azure, Phish Hunter leverages Cloud App Security, Azure Automation, and machine learning to stop attacks before they spread.

By tracking forensic behavioral data, maintaining known attack policies, and logging signs of compromise, Phish Hunter dramatically reduces the time to discover and respond to an attack.  User defined threat levels trigger built-in automation and workflow polices that enforce account protection and modification of access policies.

When a threat is detected, policy rules are automatically sent for processing.  A user’s activity is checked against a threat matrix, where high and medium risks are sent for action and alerts are emailed to a user defined distribution list. Remediation can be automated or manually initiated. 

 

Managed Services

With advanced security features built into and integrated across Microsoft 365, Forsyte incorporates managed services to complete the cybersecurity circle. Rublesky has been with Agora for two years, much longer than any other tech director before him, and has made great strides towards securing the future of Agora. When talking about working with Forsyte’s managed services Rublesky says, “when it breaks, you want it fixed,” and that’s why Agora leans on Forsyte as its Microsoft partner.

With over ninety percent of Agora’s teachers working remotely, there are numerous routers, systems, and solutions that have access to the school’s infrastructure and data. By working together to create an iron-clad platform, both on-premise and in the Azure cloud, Agora has not experienced a successful cyber threat in years.

Agora began by dropping all 3rd party Anti-virus software in 2017.  Since then Agora has committed 100% of its security posture to Microsoft and has seen a drop from over 200 security related support cases to near zero.”

– Michael Rublesky III

Information security professionals at cyber schools must be on constant watch. They face critical data protection challenges with yearly population changes of staff and students. Like other organizations, they have a growing mobile presence which increases the security concern even more. They must be vigilant on the access permitted on every level.

 

Instituting a Layered Approach to Cybersecurity

It is a priority for Agora Cyber Charter School to protect their people, data, applications, and devices. The cyber school currently uses Microsoft 365 and Phish Hunter together, which incorporates Office 365, Windows 10, Enterprise Mobility + Security, and Phish Hunter to promote a more secure collaborative learning environment. It’s the perfect multi-layered digital infrastructure for learning and searching with confidence. 

Agora Cyber Charter School currently has Office 365’s Advanced Threat Protection implemented into their environment and has taken a layered security approach.  Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection (ATP) is being used to prevent malicious threats posed by email messages, links (URLs) and collaboration tools. Agora also piloted Microsoft Cloud App security for the state of PA in K-12 EDU, so that a special Forsyte-developed phishing defense tool named Phish Hunter could be used.  

Forsyte has created a security posture that puts Agora in the driver’s seat. As a trailblazer, Agora wanted to do what it took to make its digital environment secure. It can go either way for such trailblazers, as they are the ones who kick the tires, get cuts and bruises, ultimately getting it ready for others. As early adopters of a layered security approach including Phish Hunter, Agora was a front runner in their successful security efforts. The bad news for others is that they missed the boat to get on board with such a tight security approach early on.

Overall, the Agora Cyber Charter School IT team supports 6500 students and 700 teachers. By adopting the Forsyte-recommended Microsoft solutions and collaborative cloud services, they established a digital environment with richly layered security features that provide comprehensive protection. Just as every school must work within certain budgets and constraints, Agora has managed to place a high priority on providing strong security throughout its digital environment, while staying within budget to create a trustworthy learning environment.

Rublesky and his team monitor compliance, working to ensure that the cyber school safeguards sensitive data and meets the Family Educational Rights and Privacy (FERPA) and other data security standards, such as Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), and Personal Identifiable Information (PII). In addition to maintaining compliance and defining margins of risk, they work diligently to mitigate phishing attacks and protect the accounts of students, staff, and faculty.

Agora cares about seeing its students succeed and focuses on their needs. Every student comes with a different story and they are as varied as the students themselves. As a team, they do what it takes to get each student to a level of success that might not have otherwise been possible in a traditional brick and mortar school environment.

As Agora focuses on the future, they continue to evaluate, reevaluate, and make changes to continue moving forward to ensure the level of security behind the scenes is paramount. Teachers and students are free to learn and explore in the digital world with confidence, as they solidify their K-12 educations for a brighter tomorrow.

 

Microsoft Partner Spotlight: Forsyte I.T. Solutions is a trusted Microsoft Gold partner delivering highly accessible and scalable cloud-based IT solutions and managed services using Microsoft technology. Forsyte’s cross-functional team of forward-thinking engineers, project managers, solutions experts, and programmers expertly safeguard and optimize school IT environments across the country.

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