Student data system sparks criticism

Schools incur overtime costs to resolve problems after report card delays


It is relatively new, cost $570,000 to start up, additional money to correct -- and Howard County School employees say it doesn't work.

The Student Management System, provided by Burnaby, British Columbia-based Chancery Software Ltd., was suppose to be a faster, more efficient way for schools to record grades and other pertinent achievement data. But because of program glitches, high school report cards have been delayed and employees have spent additional hours working to rectify the problems, resulting in overtime.

The management system has been a problem since it was installed in all 12 county high schools in July, some employees say

"If you spoke to any registrar, they would say we are not pleased," said Estelle King, registrar at Howard High School. "It's been a frustrating year."

The problems have delayed plans to expand the system to other grade levels and put into doubt the future of a 20-year-contract with Chancery.

Bob Glascock, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, recently told the Board of Education that central office staff would have to make a decision about whether to keep the contract with Chancery at the end of this month.

The system spends $80,000 annually on its contract with Chancery, which provides separate software for elementary and middle schools. Glascock said that Chancery has plans to phase out the other software and adopt SMS as its primary program.

"We either evolve with the company or look to another company," Glascock said.

That makes some school board members wary.

"The idea of putting everybody on the same system is a great one," said Diane Mikulis, the board's vice chairman. "[But] it is not working out the way that it was expected to at all."

Chancery attributes some of the initial problems to a learning curve and expects things to improve.

"Typically, the second year is significantly better because you have a year of configuration and change management under your belt," said Chris Sherman, executive vice president of product for Chancery. "First-year challenges are mitigated by the planning and the process."

Still, problems with the system have continued throughout the year. In the first quarter, for example, more than 1,700 report cards had to be reprinted because of a mix-up in grades. Third-quarter report cards for high school students, which were supposed to be distributed Friday, will instead be distributed April 19.

King said she was informed that final report cards for seniors would be distributed after graduation, though school system officials say the delay will not affect college admissions.

"We thought it would be something excellent that we were looking forward to," said King. "We found out it was not everything it was cracked up to be."

Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for the system, said SMS is not entirely to blame.

"Our calendar was a little tight," Caplan said. "A little caveat to that is if you are running a new system you want to make sure you have enough time."

Chancery Software launched the SMS computer program in 2001. Currently, 201 school systems use it.

Andrea Carson, director of marketing for Chancery, said other school systems have had problems with the program, although she declined to give specifics.

"We work with our customers very closely," Carson said. "We don't quit until our product works correctly."

Carson describes SMS as a "core student information product" that can link to other student management systems such as transportation, health and food services.

Glascock said that much of the money spent to address problems with the SMS system has been for overtime for school system employees who have had to recalculate and input data. System officials are still determining the amount.

"It goes back to the beginning of the year," said Linda Wise, assistant superintendent for school administration. "It involves the clerks, the registrars and counselors. We're talking about the 12 high schools."

The school system's experience also has raised questions about whether the system's computer infrastructure needs to be upgraded.

The system has grown immensely in the past two decades, said Caplan.

"We've added 26 new schools and grown by almost 20,000 students," Caplan explained. "The use of the Internet alone and e-mailing has exploded."

All of the system's 7,000 employees have e-mail addresses, Glascock said. He added that the system maintains 19,000 computers.

School system employees and representatives from Chancery have been analyzing the system's infrastructure and the computer program to resolve problems.

"I don't want anyone to get the impression that if we have unhappy users that is par for the course, and I don't want people to get the impression that Howard requires more work than others," Sherman said.

"I understand the challenges that the counselors and the teachers are going through. We're not taking that lightly. If they are not happy, then we are not happy."

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