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How schools are supercharging the SIS

New systems do much more than track grades and schedules
Rachel Moseley, chief information officer at Scarsdale Public Schools in New York, above, shows Diego Gomez, a pre-law student doing an internship with her IT team last summer, where to find information on the district website and where to find the spreadsheet that he needs to update.
Rachel Moseley, chief information officer at Scarsdale Public Schools in New York, above, shows Diego Gomez, a pre-law student doing an internship with her IT team last summer, where to find information on the district website and where to find the spreadsheet that he needs to update.

Wyoming’s Laramie County School District implemented its first student information system more than 15 years ago so teachers could enter grades electronically and share student progress with other educators.

Almost immediately, district leaders realized they needed additional information systems to compile special education data, monitor No Child Left Behind standards, track visits to nurses and send emergency and weather notifications.

By 2011, district officials were using seven different systems, all of which required separate updates, passwords and usernames. “We had so many different systems that our secretaries were pulling their hair out,” says Gordon Knopp, the district’s chief information officer.

After years of research that involved more than 100 district staff members, parents and students, Laramie County in 2013 implemented a new SIS from Infinite Campus to handle all automated tasks.

“Our folks need to log into only one system now and don’t have to navigate numerous systems, and nobody has to spend time updating data from one system into the others,” Knopp says. “The new system does automatically what we were running seven systems to do before.”

Robust systems that automate a wide range of tasks allow for more efficient business operations and ensure that mission-critical processes are done properly and at the right time.

Changing needs, evolving systems

The Center Grove Community School Corporation in Indiana began using Skyward SIS in 2006 as an administrative tool. Over the years, the tool has evolved and the district has added modules for food service, attendance, report cards and parent communication, says Jason Taylor, the district’s chief technology officer.

While Center Grove has not decreased the size of its administrative staff, it has “reinvented many of the positions,” Taylor says. For instance, nutrition staff members no longer call or email parents about overdue accounts—those messages are sent automatically. That frees up time for menu planning and other higher-level functions, Taylor says.

Maine Township High School District 207 uses Aspen SIS, produced by Follett School Solutions, to communicate a range of information more accurately and quickly, and in a standard format, says Henry Thiele, the district’s assistant superintendent of technology and learning. His district uses an autodialer, SIS with SchoolMessenger, to send parents information about discipline and attendance.

“SIS is becoming more mobile and information needs to be generated on demand, sometimes without human interaction,” Thiele says.

Administrators in Scarsdale Public Schools in New York use SIS from Infinite Campus to analyze data, spot trends in student learning and replicate teaching practices that are proving to be effective. For example, the district is trying to determine if there is a correlation between ninth grade math performance and success in 10th grade chemistry.

“Questions of correlation and relationship are being explored,” says Rachel Moseley, the district’s chief information officer.

Beyond storing data, some SIS products are being used to personalize learning, says Raymond Ackerlund, vice president of marketing and product management for Skyward.

The systems allow educators to share course materials and send out online assessments. Districts also can use SIS data analysis tools to ensure students are placed in the most appropriate classes and programs, and then keep track of students’ progress. “That’s ultimately what we’re all working toward: empowering school district success,” Ackerlund says.

Common challenges

As information systems take on increasing loads of student data and are used by more people, security and privacy are top concerns. Meanwhile, more school district leaders are seeking systems that offer cloud-computing solutions, says Ackerlund. A cloud approach “can actually enhance data security,” Ackerlund says. It eliminates the possibilities of human error in managing and backing up an on-premise server, and can reduce the costs of overhead and application management.

In Scarsdale, technology officials ensure their systems are secure by selecting only vendors “that use state-of-the art technology and build robust solutions,” Moseley says. “When we select a system, we verify that the vendor is committed to data security and privacy, and we engage third parties who specialize in data security to perform penetration tests before we make a final system selection.”

The Rose Tree Media School District in Pennsylvania uses Sungard, which requires users to change passwords on a regular basis. Sungard users also have to log in twice to access highly sensitive modules, such as those dealing with financials, performance tracking and special education, says Patty Linden, the district’s director of technology and information science.

“Truly integrated systems call for layers of security and compliance,” says George Gatsis, senior vice president of technology platforms for Follett School Solutions. “Security features need to be designed not only to provide physical and digital security, but also to empower districts to develop, enact and enforce their privacy policies.”

There are several layers to SIS security, from managing access throughout the system to blocking against external intrusion. Wider access should be given to educators than is granted to students who might be logging on as part of a 1-to-1 or BYOD program. Staff also should be trained on the appropriate use of confidential information. And districts need to ensure that off-site data storage is secure and the whole system is backed up.

Making choices

Choosing a new or upgraded SIS takes time and collaboration, says Taylor of Center Grove. It’s important to find out what types of information and access are important to parents and students who use the system. “The decision is too big for just the tech staff and a few district leaders,” Taylor says. “You really need to bring in parents and students for their input.”

When evaluating various SIS solutions, look for systems that already “meet your immediate needs,” rather than settling for one that promises updates in the near future, says James Wigo, superintendent of Rose Tree Media School District. “Make sure it is nimble because nothing stands still in terms of requirements.”

State and federal rules are constantly changing, and school leaders are forced to reorganize data and to provide it in different formats, Wigo says.

Also, ask your fellow school districts and other clients about their customer service experiences with particular vendors. “You’re at the mercy of customer service,” says Mack Johnson, management systems administrator at Rose Tree.

Vendors regularly update online resources, such as user manuals and guides. And when online tutorials can be shared with teachers, staff and other users, it reduces the time IT needs to spend on training.

Districts must have a firm grasp of their processes and vocabulary to understand their needs, says Thiele of Maine Township. When talking with SIS providers, “describe what the information looks like when you collect it and ultimately the form it has to take when you report it out to others,” he says. Thiele also recommends insisting on test environments so district end users can “play with the system without fear of breaking anything as they learn,” he says.

In evaluating SIS options, districts should not just focus on the particulars, but keep the big picture of information management in mind.

“The real power of today’s student information system is its ability to provide the information in a way that allows district educators to connect the dots to inform district processes and programs,” says Joel Hames, senior product director at Sungard. “And, with the right kind of tool sets and training, district educators can really dig in and learn a lot about their schools that can help them better serve their students’ needs.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a contributing writer.