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The SIFication of America

Districts are streamlining a plethora of data seamlessly, helping them make better decisions.

You can add to the growing number of buzzwords influencing K12 education in the 21st century—from “annual yearly progress” to “professional learning communities”— the word “SIFication.” That’s what Patrick Plant, the Anoka-Hennepin (Minn.) School District’s director of technology and information services, calls the expanding efforts of districts like his to streamline data management.

The Schools Interoperability Framework, a set of specifications created a decade ago to allow diverse educational software applications to interact and share information automatically, has come of age. District leaders across the country say that turning to SIF-compliant software has made a noticeable impact when it comes to fulfilling another popular administrative mantra—data-driven decision making.

According to the SIF Association (SIFA)—a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization that offers information, workshops, and conferences for vendors as well as school districts, regional service agencies, and state departments of education—membership has soared from just 68 five years ago to more than 2,000 by the end of 2008 and has doubled in the past year alone.

The surge in SIF’s popularity dates from the release two-and-a-half years ago of the 2.0 version of the specifications, which increased the kinds of data that could be shared among applications; added attendance, discipline, and grade book functionality; and allowed electronic exchanges of student records. SIFA Executive Director Larry Fruth explains that SIF is increasingly becoming the standard for a new generation of administrative software programs.

“One of the applications that’s becoming a really hot topic is facilities management,” Fruth notes. “And that means, ‘I want to have a lot of the data about my building in the hands of the teachers and administrators.’ Another one even more recently is health, ‘school-nurse’ information. There are a lot of applications being built around that. Those kinds of interoperability weren’t on anyone’s radar screen five years ago.”

These new applications connect via SIF to student information systems such as Pearson’s SASIxp and PowerSchool and get easy access to their centralized pool of data, from student ID numbers to home addresses. The process works via a Zone Integration Server (ZIS)—a piece of software that sits on the end user’s server, either at the school, district, region or state level, and acts as communications center—and a SIF agent, which is a utility tool built into compliant software applications. The ZIS and SIF agents are able to transfer student information to each other using a cross-platform language called Extensible Markup Language (XML). For example, Edustructures just launched the SIFWorks ZIS Enterprise edition, which delivers in part the benefits of SIF standardization with the flexibility of custom data manipulation and user and group account management.

SIF Savings

While the workings of SIF are not that visible, the results are hard to miss. According to SIFA, the 130,000-student Duvall County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla., has saved more than $500,000 (and an estimated $200,000 in lost productivity) a year by eliminating the need to create and maintain accounts across different software programs.

The smaller Vail Unified School District near Tucson, Ariz., has seen its own share of gains. “I love SIF. It rocks. It has saved us so much grief,” exults Matt Federoff, the director of technology for Vail. “We don’t buy anything now that doesn’t have a SIF agent.”

Federoff had known about SIF since its inception in 1999 but waited until the release of the 2.0 version, which worked with the Apple OS X server that the district preferred. He noticed an immediate improvement over past data management practices. For example, a teacher takes a class to the computer lab but two students cannot log on because one forgets his password and the other just joined the class. “The teacher wasted five precious minutes” getting someone in network support to create an account, he says.

By contrast, an authentication system facilitated by SIF and tied to PowerSchool creates a valid account automatically and furnishes student desktops with the icons for any needed applications. “It takes 34 seconds,” says Federoff. “We’ve timed it.”

He also has linked PowerSchool via SIF to the district’s netIEP special education software and to its Transfinder transportation management system, which both keep accurate track of students using PowerSchool’s centralized database, and he is currently searching for a SIF-compliant cafeteria program, which he figures will speed checkouts by instantaneously identifying students. “Right now a kid hits the cash register, and the poor lady there has no idea who he his. He has his bean burrito and tater tots, and the line is backing up!”

SIFifying also has made a big difference for Federoff’s technology department. “In the old days, one application could cause another appliction to crash,” he says. “Now ZIS politely disconnects the offending application. It keeps systems from being entangled with each other.”

Rather than fixing those and other kinds of problems, Federoff says his staff has focused on projects such as creating the online environment to make the district’s Empire High School the first textbook- free high school in the nation.

Vertical Reach

The new interoperability also extends vertically to some state departments of education, such as in Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia, Wyoming and Ohio, Fruth says, by automating the exchange of critical data and “making the process easier for districts to know what the state wants and how to submit it in an easier, less painful mode.”

Bart Kunz, network manager for the Lincoln County (Wyo.) Schools, notes that SIF has reduced the time-consuming task of acquiring state-assigned identification numbers for students. “They register in PowerSchool and within 10 minutes their number is there,” Kunz says.

The district similarly can file state reports on matters such as attendance and special education, both of which are critical for funding, as well as statistics on graduation, crime and violence.

“The state isn’t forcing schools to fit one mold,” Kunz points out. “No one in the state tells schools what student information system to use. All they say is that you’ve got to use one that uses SIF.”

The same approach goes for exchanging records with state colleges or trade schools. “A student can put in an application to the University of Wyoming and send it electronically via SIF,” Kunz says. “It doesn’t matter what format it is in.” With SIF in place, the data arrives in the exact format of the application used by the receiving institution.

What Administrators Want

Even longtime “SIFophiles,” such as Plant, who is also a SIF board member, appreciate the growing reach of SIF. For example, if the superintendent wants to send out an alert to the community, he can use ParentLink to communicate by automated telephone call with the parents of the district’s almost 40,000 students. “When we used our internal phone lines that call could take a few days to process,” Plant says.

Instead, the SIF standards allow the data needed for those calls to transfer seamlessly to the network of the local telephone company and for the calls themselves to travel quickly over the huge bandwidth in that network.

Dennis Carlson, Anoka-Hennepin’s superintendent, sees additional possibilities in years to come and envisions an easier bridge to all kinds of achievement. “We’re focusing on student learning goals throughout the organization, and everything from test scores to curriculum and instruction data feed into the areas we need to measure,” he says. “Those districts that efficiently and effectively use data are going to be in the lead in this kind of economic climate. My vision is to walk in every morning, and get a quick look on my dashboard to determine how well we’re meeting those goals. SIF would be essential for that.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer for District Administration.

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