School suffers opening woes

Most Reservoir High students won't get schedules until first day of classes Monday

August 25, 2006|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,Sun reporter

Even as key Howard County personnel met with a team of officials from a computer company that is linked to a problematic student data program, one high school was in the process of notifying students that they would not receive their class schedules until the first day of school.

Top-ranking school officials said that the delay at Reservoir High School is not directly caused by the Student Management System, or SMS. They blame it, instead, on human error, but conceded that the problem could have been corrected in time for the start of classes if school employees had not been tied up with SMS.

"It just so happened that at Reservoir they had a new scheduler," said school board Chairman Joshua Kaufman. "They were working 20 hours a day."

Freshmen at Reservoir received their schedules yesterday during orientation, but sophomores, juniors, and seniors will have to wait until Monday.

Adrianne Kaufman, principal of Reservoir High, was working on scheduling problems and could not be reached for comment yesterday.

While parents and students were learning about the delays at Reservoir -- letters were sent to parents this week explaining the delays -- key system officials met with two vice presidents and an account representative from the New Jersey-based Pearson Education, which now provides SMS to Howard County.

The group discussed the future of the $838,000 computer program and the future of Chancery Software Ltd., the British Columbia-based company that was acquired by Pearson in May.

Although Howard County officials have said that Pearson Education is one of the top companies of its kind, the acquisition has left some uncertainty about the future of SMS. The school board chairman said he expects to be briefed about the meeting today when he speaks with Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin.

Messages to representatives of Chancery and Pearson were not returned late this week.

Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for the system, said that the group of school officials -- which included Thomas Miller, e-Learning facilitator, and Bob Glascock, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction -- spoke about the recent problems with SMS, how the acquisition would affect SMS, and who would be responsible for direct communication with the school system after the restructuring of the two companies.

"We wanted to get those basic things clarified," Caplan said.

Glascock said that during the 2 1/2 -hour meeting the group discussed the level of support that Pearson would provide the school system with SMS and the solutions -- short term and midterm -- that would address SMS.

"We had a very productive dialogue regarding the challenges that we have faced with their product," Glascock said. "They were very receptive with our concerns."

Howard County, like school systems across the nation, has pursued new student data programs to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires that school systems report student data like attendance, enrollment, and discipline. To meet the requirements, school systems have said they need centralized computer programs.

Since the county school system implemented SMS at all 12 high schools in July last year, there have been delays and cost headaches.

In the first quarter of the 2005-2006 school year, 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 were distributed a week late because of SMS. Final report cards for seniors were distributed after graduation, although school system officials said the delay did not affect college admissions.

And just this week, the school system mailed schedules to students at every high school except for Reservoir -- almost three weeks later than planned -- because of SMS.

The school system has spent $88,000 -- including $35,000 in the past month -- on overtime costs resulting from SMS, and $20,000 for a network analysis performed to help isolate problems with the program.

The school system initially spent $650,000 for contracted technical support for the SMS program and $80,000 for the annual maintenance and licensing fees for a contract with Chancery.

School officials have said that the costs associated with SMS have been far less expensive than the costs of implementing a new system; the system had a pre-existing contract with Chancery.

School board member Courtney Watson said that it would cost several million dollars to purchase a new computer program or build a custom-made system.

"It looked like a smart decision looking at the alternative," Watson said at last week's board meeting. "[Now] we need to figure out if SMS is salvageable."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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