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Making Paperwork Fulfilling

Student information systems may sound dull, but picking the right one and using it the right way can

Anticipated benefits aside, headaches created by the reporting requirements of No Child Left Behind can't be underestimated, especially when it comes to wrangling the necessary data from an old or underutilized student information system. Suddenly, reports on adequate yearly progress, highly qualified teachers and other topics have focused the spotlight on SISs and the companies that make them. Here's a look at what's new in the market, how to get the most from what you've got, and when it's time to swallow hard and upgrade.

Beyond Attendance and Scheduling

At Anoka-Hennepin ISD 11, in Coon Rapids, Minn., a district with 41,000 students and 50 school buildings, NCLB has caused a shift in priorities when it comes to SIS technology.

"A couple of objectives that we have this year have been pushed to the forefront because of NCLB," says Georgia Kedrowski, information systems coordinator for the district. Among them are parent reporting and near real-time access to performance data for teachers.

The leading technology vendors in the SIS market say customer demand has led to fervent work on state-specific reporting modules.

"Customers are more sophisticated and demanding customized, state-level reporting," says Steve Curtis, chief operating officer at Edustructures, which sells zone integration servers that allow different school software programs to trade information with each other. (See below)

"We're hoping to provide more data to more people in a more efficient fashion. If done correctly, more people can ask and answer their own questions." -Georgia Kedrowski, Anoka-Hennepin ISD 11, Coon Rapids, Minn

Other significant developments in SIS technology have come in the form of add-on functionality rather than major additions to existing SIS systems. Among the most in demand are modules that allow parents and students to use the Internet to view attendance, discipline and grade information. Pearson now offers Concert, a parent access add-on designed to work with a variety of SIS systems. Apple-owned PowerSchool was one of the first to offer parent access a few years ago, and reports significant acceptance.

"What we're seeing is it has a powerful impact in terms of engaging the most important constituent in terms of how a child does in school, and that's the parent," says Brent Harrison, vice president of marketing at PowerSchool.

Another significant add-on to SISs, one that retail companies like banks and catalog companies have focused on in recent years, is data warehousing and data mining.

Gary Murphy, solutions architect at Chancery and a former teacher, principal and schools CIO, could have predicted this trend.

"One of the things principals would always say to me when I was a CIO is, 'This is great that you're collecting all this stuff. It's fine, but it doesn't help me at all. I need to know what areas of math my students are weak in?' " Murphy says.

Data mining tools are intended to solve that problem, giving even less-sophisticated users the ability to "slice and dice" data, as the industry cliche goes.

Anoka-Hennepin is currently looking for a data warehouse solution.

"We really think we need a data warehouse so we can analyze the data we collect more meaningfully," says Kedrowski. "I think we're hoping to provide more data to more people in a more efficient fashion. If done correctly, more people can ask and answer their own questions, rather than calling my office and asking me."

Optimizing Existing Technology

Four key ideas continually surface when it comes to making the most of the SIS technology: leadership, communication, training and more training.

The hardest of these four to remedy is also the one that's hardest to quantify--leaders who believe that SIS and its accompanying technology can be more than just a way to keep attendance records and do reporting.

"I don't believe the most successful examples of SIS implementations have made this purely a technology solution," says Harrison. "It has to be in line with the school's vision of where they want to be. We have a lot of great leaders who are not technologists, but they have an ability to look at technology as an enabler."

The second key ingredient is one that Anoka-Hennepin has transformed into a monthly, or sometimes weekly, art form: the meeting. The district has monthly meetings where the technology staff meets with all the secretaries that have been designated as the lead data managers in their buildings, working to ensure that each and every field in its SASIxp SIS from Pearson is used in precisely the same way in each of the district's 50 schools, and discussing how the system might be further customized to meet their needs. On top of that, the district has a student information systems council, run by the superintendent's office, which includes parents, administrators and every level of teaching staff.

There's a point where upgrading your SIS is a luxury, and a time when it is a necessity. The squeaky wheel may get the grease, but a flat tire gets replaced in a hurry.

"It seems like we have an awful lot of committees, and an awful lot of meetings, but it's the only way you can get the communication that you need," Kedrowski says. "We know that it's extremely important that you have a solid base level of data before you can move on to some of these other initiatives [like SIF and data warehousing]."

But not to be overlooked when it comes to optimizing technology are training and retraining. As Murphy knowingly says, "[Teachers have] never had the type of training time and resources that they need to take full advantage of anything."

With that in mind, ongoing training is necessary both as the system grows in complexity, as user needs change, and as users come and go from the district.

When to Start Over

Most SISs are meant to have a life span of five to seven years, after which they tend to become marginalized by the faster, cheaper, better products available in the market. This doesn't mean that there aren't thousands of districts operating homegrown or legacy systems that are 10 to 15 years old. There's a point where upgrading is a luxury, and eventually a time when it becomes a necessity. The squeaky wheel may get the grease, but a flat tire gets replaced in a hurry.

"If you have difficulty scheduling students, you can work around that," says Phil Schlesinger, product manager for Pearson's SASIxp SIS. "But if you have product quality issues around reporting, you don't want to mess around with that."

Related Information

Rebecca Sausner is a contributing editor.