Tech Response

Selecting a student management system can be one of the most important decisions a school district makes, so don't skimp when it comes to researching options and costs.

David McCauslin

CHANGE IS GOOD — USUALLY. BUT unless you and your district do your homework before you invest in and implement a new student management system, it can be a painful or even catastrophic experience. Selecting an SMS can be one of the most important decisions a school district makes, and the No Child Left Behind Act makes it even more crucial.

The first thing a school district selection committee must do is determine what’s important. What do you wish to accomplish with the new system? Are the basics all you need? Do you require integration with your financial system? How about grades and outside access? Food service?

Cost is always an issue, but don’t allow it to become the only issue. Some reliable, inexpensive solutions are out there, but the cost generally goes up as the level of integration and interoperability goes up. One approach is to pick a modular system that allows your district to add functionality as the budget increases, while still providing the necessary level of integration.

In 1997, Michigan’s Cheboygan Area Schools had an aging DOS-based SMS. At that time, there were about 2,500 students in four elementary schools, a junior and a senior high school, an alternative education center and administrative offices — all at different locations in the 175-square-mile district. Each building was a separate entity, with no connectivity or interaction with the others, so processing any task was slow.

The old SMS handled scheduling, demographics, grading and attendance — and nothing else. However, at the time, the district was upgrading and beginning a building project that involved connecting the seven buildings via fiber-optic cables and adding technology throughout them. It was the perfect time for the district to consider changing to a new SMS.

The first step was to organize a committee of key users and administrators (a principal, the curriculum director, three secretaries, two teachers and the technology director) who could create a wish list of wants and needs and make a valid assessment of current usage. These individuals could see beyond their current duties and envision where the district should be headed.

Because the buildings would be connected, the committee chose a common database to allow demographic information to be family-based — with students and their siblings linked via parent contact information — rather than duplicated in each school. It would also allow student information to flow seamlessly from the lower elementary to the upper elementary, to the middle school and then to the high school, as students progressed through their educational careers.

A GOOD MARRIAGE

In 1998, after much consideration and discussion, the Cheboygan school district selected a basic student management system, with health records and discipline modules added.

The system was expanded gradually, and today the SMS integrates scheduling, grading, attendance, health records and alerts, academic/athletic eligibility, activities, special education, state reporting, an integrated electronic grade book, food service and a Web-based family access module. The financial software is separate.

District administrators and staff say this SMS is a good marriage between the school district’s data-processing needs and the software’s abilities, and they believe the system is working well for the Cheboygan schools.

A new student management system is a tremendous investment in any school district’s future. When it’s researched and chosen properly, such a system can provide positive changes that can enhance and simplify your school district’s operations.

David McCauslin is the technology director at Michigan’s Cheboygan Area Schools
(mccauslind@cheboygan.k12.mi.us.)

WHAT’S INSIDE?

The typical student management system has common elements, including:

Demographics: Manages information about students’ families, emergency contacts, etc.

Attendance: Tracks student absences and generates appropriate documentation.

Scheduling: Handles scheduling for the current and following years.

Grading: Tracks grade history for current marking periods; calculates rank and grade point average, if appropriate; generates report cards and progress reports.

Health Information: Keeps track of students’ health conditions, immunizations and health alerts.

Special Education: Monitors disability information for reporting needs, Individual Education Plan and other mandated special education reporting criteria.

Vocational Programs: Handles classifications for vocational programs and tracks completion records for reporting purposes.

Discipline: Monitors offenses and resulting discipline.

No Child Left Behind: Tracks progress and achievement of students, school building statistics and district statistics.

State Reporting: Reports student statistics to satisfy mandates.

Integrated Electronic Grade Book: Allows teachers to enter assignments and tests and to track grades. It should let information be exported to the grading module to generate report cards.

Food Service: Tracks nutritional information and lunch money owed or paid in advance.

HOMEWORK CHECKLIST

When you’re considering a student management system (SMS), consider these areas:

Support: After-sale support is a key issue. Does the vendor you are considering offer fee-based support per call? Does it offer toll-free support with an annual maintenance program? There is no right or wrong way to set this up. You have to decide what the best fit is for your particular environment.

Compliancy: One of the most important considerations is to ensure that your SMS complies with your state’s reporting requirements. The software vendor you select must be committed to maintaining compliancy as laws evolve and change. Michigan, for instance, has some aggressive reporting requirements, which are continually evolving.

Training: Make sure your vendor provides adequate training and your budget provides funds for that training. If your users are not properly trained, you won’t reap the full benefit of your new SMS. It’s as important to train your system administrators as it is to train the end users.

Modifications: Another concern is the availability of source code. If you have your own programming staff, you may want the source code so you can modify the programs for your site. Find out in advance whether your proposed vendor will make the source code available, or how much the vendor will charge for modifications and updating.

Oct 31 2006

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