Finding a Database Match

How to choose the right student information system for your school.

A technology director at any school or district must get a lot of things right: The hardware has to be sufficient, the network must operate well, the tech support must be readily available — and it all has to stay within an ever-tightening budget. One critical piece that many tech directors are faced with is the database system. How can you tell when it needs to be replaced? How do you choose the best system? How do you go about installing it? How does it work with systems already in place? Learn how these IT leaders made the right decisions for their schools.

To Replace or Not Replace

In Wichita, Kan., Sherry Goodvin has just upgraded the Maize Unified School District 266 to a new student information system. As the director of secondary education and student services for this 6,300-student district, she says, “Making the determination that we needed a new system was the easy part.” Swapping their old client-server system for a Web-based system has allowed them to provide better access to families and teachers.

Fred Howie, district technology coordinator for the rural Unified School District 444 Little River/Windom (Kan.), agrees. “We made [a] switch a few years ago, and one of the main reasons was the access it gives parents and teachers.” Web-based systems typically allow teachers to post grades and assignments, and in some cases discipline and attendance information, in a simplified way. And, parents don’t have to wait for grade reports to come home to monitor their child’s progress.

Davis Brock, who has spent five years as technology director for Elmore County (Ala.) Public School System, wanted to upgrade for five reasons: to have more accurate data, get all users on the same page, track students across districts, provide clean historical records, and focus on individual student needs. Brock chose to go with the state-recommended SIS for the 15-school, 11,000-student district. “We had to do lots of manual data entry before we changed systems.” he says. “Being on the same page with most other districts in the state, though, has allowed for us to focus more on our jobs and less on data entry and anomalies.”

Choosing the Best System

Once you decide to replace your current system, how do you choose a new one? “Get everyone involved,” Goodvin says. “I coordinated a group that included principals, clerical staff, registrars and central-office administration to evaluate current SIS systems.” Like Alabama, Kansas does not mandate a particular system, so Goodvin and her group evaluated several systems and narrowed those down to three. Her group visited schools that were using those systems so they could watch teachers and staff actually doing their day-to-day tasks on them. “This provided great insight. We were able to talk to the end-users directly and find out the good and the bad,” she says. Their final decision was made based on how easily the district could grow into the database and eventually use it for all district operations.

Howie took a similar approach. He recommends getting teachers involved and choosing a system that is easy for them to use. “If it is difficult, they are not going to use it,” he says.

Working through the Schools Interoperability Framework Association’s (SIFA) Web site (www.sifinfo.org), school professionals can find out what companies provide SIS solutions and which school districts are using them. Tools on the group’s site allow users to check the compatibility of an SIS solution with their existing software. “We can also put schools in touch with other schools that are using the systems,” says Laurie Collins, the organization’s project strategist. SIFA provides member companies technical specifications to ensure interoperability of school database systems.

Collins recommends that a district or school approach database selection from a philosophical standpoint, understanding that a new database system will change the work flow and culture of the district. Doug Pinkerton, director of technology at Harding Academy in Memphis, Tenn., agrees. “The selection of a database system is a de facto decision to adopt a particular strategy, which will in turn have a huge, schoolwide impact upon methods and procedures.”

Implementation

Brock’s Alabama district had a big problem, but a lot to gain from a unified system. Each school in his district used a different system, which meant data differed from school to school. He convened decision-makers, teachers, counselors, administrative staff and technology personnel to agree on consistent attendance and discipline codes, course numbers, GPA calculations and more. “We went through each code from all the schools and came to a consensus on how it matched the state codes,” he says. Goodvin agrees that the more time spent up front, the better the data will be in the end. “It is labor intensive, but it is important to go through each field and determine how it matches up with the field on the new system. If I had it to do all over again, I’d spend more time and energy on this step.”

Goodvin had the school’s database vendor convert data from her old system to the new one, but only for current students and the graduating class. For historical records of past students, she uses the old system. Brock also recommends not converting data on students who are no longer in the system. “We still have our old DOS-based system that we can use for that on the rare occasion,” he says. Both districts implemented their systems and trained their faculty and staff in the summer. Howie, however, implemented his district’s new system midyear and does not regret it. His district did not convert any data. “Our secretaries spent a full day entering data on every student, allowing them to become familiar with the new system,” he adds.

“Lean on the project coordinator the database company assigns to your district as much as possible,” says Goodvin. For her, the help this person provided through the implementation, conversion and training was invaluable. “We had trainers come to our campus for multiple days to train our primary users,” she says. The school technology department then trains the teachers. Brock goes the extra step in Elmore County by hosting a users-group meeting every week, which allows workers to address topics as they arise.

If you haven’t been through an SIS overhaul yet, chances are you will. It’s a substantial, necessary and challenging transformation — to be successful, you’ll need to plan, prepare, take a team approach and have the patience of a saint. As Goodvin summarizes, “The first year you endure, the second year you ask more questions, then you begin setting things up differently.”

Jan 25 2008

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