Schools seek new system for data

Replacement of SMS needed in six years, officials declare

December 20, 2006|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,sun reporter

Although many of the problems associated with a bug-ridden and complicated student-data computer program have been worked out, top-ranking Howard County school officials say they want to replace it with a customized but more costly method of collecting information in the future.

Although system officials do not anticipate switching to a new computer storage program - called a data warehouse - for about six years, they are planning for the eventual change.

"Our goal is to become more self-supporting on technology and not so dependent on vendors," said Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin.

The Student Management System, or SMS, has been an issue in the system since it was implemented in July last year.

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 this August, the school system mailed schedules to students at every high school but one almost three weeks later than planned because of SMS. The schedules for Reservoir, the exception, did not go out at all.

Though the delay was ascribed to human error, system officials said the problem could have been corrected in time for the start of classes if school employees had not been tied up with SMS-related issues.

"It was a painful lesson to learn," said Cousin. "I may be a slow learner, but I learn the lesson eventually."

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 such student data as attendance, enrollment and disciplinary actions. To meet the requirements, school systems have said they need centralized computer programs.

The system is using three programs to collect student data. The combination has worked to alleviate many of the headaches that were found in the first year of implementation of SMS, system officials said.

"Our help desk is not receiving the number of calls in the past, and we are receiving a number of letters" saying we are doing better, said Jose Stevenson, the system's director of information technology.

Sandra Erickson, chief administrative and academic officer, emphasized that there is still a lot of work to do.

"We have a long list of things we are working on to make it more user-friendly," she said. "But certainly the climate is better than last year."

When Cousin unveils the fiscal 2008 operating budget Jan. 4, he said, there will be several items to make the school system more technologically self-sufficient.

"That will mean more staff," the superintendent said. "We want to make sure we can deliver what we say we can, like delivering report cards on time. The lesson I have learned is that we can do it better. It's going to take time and more money."

Cousin foresees problems staffing the new positions because the system's pay scales are not competitive.

"We have negotiated scales that do not meet the skills they demand," he said. "We need that increased skill level to be successful."

A new data warehouse, intended to eliminate the need for three independent computer programs, would be costly. Estimates run from $5 million to $13 million, according to Stevenson.

Board member Ellen Flynn Giles said her research puts the cost at $17 million.

"This is a huge step we have to take," Giles said. "We are too big of a business not to do it."

Howard County has spent nearly $1 million implementing SMS.

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 Software Ltd., a British Columbia-based company that was later sold to the New Jersey-based Pearson Education.

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

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

john-john.williams@baltsun

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