The proliferation of new technologies to handle front and back office functions is the same for education as it has been for every other industry, with one major exception: School districts have a dizzying number of simultaneous functions to manage.

Hundreds of technology vendors tout thousands of software applications–all promising to lower a district’s administrative costs and boost its efficiency.

With limited resources, so many functions to address, and so many vendors to choose from, school technology decision makers definitely have their work cut out for them.

As schools increasingly rely on technology to manage day-to-day tasks such as payroll, inventory, transportation, lunch room management, class scheduling, record keeping, grade reporting, student enrollment, and curriculum management, probably the greatest challenge lies in developing a system where the various software functions can communicate with one another.

Daniel Aggen, vice president and general manager of education technology consultant e-school.edu inc., agrees. When it comes to software incompatibility in schools, Aggen has seen just about everything.

There was the school district administrative building in which various departments were actively using three very different and incompatible word processors, for example. “So even inter-office memos had to be delivered in paper form,” Aggen recalled.

A more common incompatibility problem occurs when offices and classrooms are operating on different equipment, he said.

“In many school districts, the administration will be existing in a PC world, while teachers are using Macintosh in the classrooms,” Aggen said. “It’s almost like they’ve created two separate worlds.”

When a client needs multiple systems to handle various office functions, Aggen said his firm always looks for systems that are compatible. Unfortunately, he conceded, many districts are restricted by tight budgets and tend to go with the vendor that pitches the lowest price, regardless of whether that vendor’s software is compatible with other systems being used by the district.

Still, many options exist for school districts to make decisions with compatibility in mind–decisions that at the very least will ensure that related functions are run on like systems.

For example, this summer the Homer, Ill., Public School District will implement a new student administrative system from Specialized Data Systems Inc. (SDS), along with a $20,000 transportation application program called VersaTrans from Creighton Manning of Delmar, N.Y. District business manager John Lavelle said the attendance functions of SDS will be integrated with VersaTrans to create the district’s transportation routing schedule.

The SDS administrative software is also compatible with the district’s Jackson Software-provided GradeQuick reporting system, Lavelle said. The end result is that administrators will only have to enter a student’s information once to maintain multiple functions such as demographics, grade reporting, and busing.

Complete solutions

School districts looking to avoid the messy complications of incompatible software systems now have another ally: Several companies are beginning to offer “turnkey” solutions that combine several school management functions into a single package or family of products.

For example, HTE Education Solutions (formerly Phoenix Systems) of Lake Mary, Fla., says it can provide a complete administrative solution for school districts. HTE provides fully integrated applications for general accounting, human resources, payroll, and comprehensive student management. All applications run in a Microsoft NT environment and allow for complete integration with Microsoft Office programs.

HTE’s Student Administration System handles everything from registration, attendance, and scheduling to grade reporting and transcripts. It stores and maintains a wide range of data–including student parking information, health background, activities, locker assignment, transportation, homeroom assignment, and student profile. It can also integrate bar code scanner systems for attendance and grade reporting.

HTE also provides a suite of products that integrate back office functions. The company’s General Accounting System allows for access to multiple users and includes a variety of functions, such as general ledger, accounts payable and receivable, budget development, purchasing, invoicing, vendor history, Form 1099 generation, integrated reporting, requisitions, check reconciliation, and state reporting. The system also features a secure environment and the ability to conform to either accrual, modified accrual, or cash accounting standards.

For staffing needs, HTE’s Human Resources application features online processing and management of employee records. It stores both current and historical data to compile complete reports based on demographics, academic and professional credentials, compensation and benefits, or attendance and assignments. The human resources system can also store a digital photo along with an employee’s records.

For online processing of staff compensation, you can add a payroll application capable of handling direct deposit, retirement fund contributions, multiple pay schedules, and unlimited deductions.

The Bloomfield, Conn., School District uses HTE’s software to manage its 2,650 students and operate its five schools. Since each of the district’s buildings is networked, data can be shared online among its various departments. Payroll can be linked to staff attendence over the network, for example, saving a great deal of time and paperwork.

The system “has made life easier because we have just one point of contact,” said Jean Gilmore, the district’s business manager. Using one vendor also assures the district that its systems will be interoperable, Gilmore added.

Student tracking and reporting

Educational Technologies Software & Services Inc. (ETSS) of Raleigh, N.C., recently unveiled a student information system of note that combines the federal reporting and test-analysis components of one popular ETSS product, Advantage, with the student management functions of another, Success. Known as Advantage 5.0, the hybrid offers educators a comprehensive approach to student management.

Launched in 1986 as a teacher recruitment and training company, ETSS later delved into curriculum and administrative software. Advantage was soon created to help school districts deal with federally-mandated Title I and migrant education reporting requirements, while Success was geared toward managing troubled students.

A combination of the two, Advantage 5.0 is Y2K-compliant and offers fully integrated student data, analysis, grading, and scheduling capabilities for complete school-by-school analysis.

The application is an “open system” that uses a standard Microsoft interface, meaning users will work with Microsoft Office programs such as Word, Excel, and Access. Another feature, called “Quick Queries,” allows for “point-and-click” analysis of student information, meaning school districts can concentrate on getting the information they need and spend less time training personnel on query protocols.

To help schools comply with state-mandated reports, Advantage 5.0 is customizable and allows all minimum standard requirements to be entered into the system’s achievement table, ETSS said. The system can hold historical data and can produce a wide range of graphical charts and reports.

As for compatibility with other systems, ETSS says it has relationships with other vendors to address those concerns. For instance, if a school district wants to completely integrate a database to manage student information and staffing needs, ETSS said it can establish a link to SAP’s K-12 Human Resource System. Similar links can be built to bring food service functions and transportation scheduling online as well, the company said.

Schools Interoperability Framework

But even if a district has the budget to be selective and carefully chooses software packages that create minimal or no incompatibilities within its own operations, there’s no way to avoid the problems that come with installing a replacement system or sharing data between two or more school systems.

For example, what happens when a school or district decides to change to a completely new system, such as converting to a new database? Riverton High School in Wyoming is in the midst of doing just that, according to computer teacher Sarah Giard, who said the conversion has been anything but easy.

“Some of the student data did not transfer over, so the information is being reentered for over 1,200 students in our high school,” Giard said, adding that the conversion has also disrupted data uploads from the district’s middle schools.

And the issues only increase when school systems try to communicate with each another.

“Common formats would greatly facilitate the essential task of integrating information on students transferring into a district,” said Charles Rosengard, manager of information systems and technology for Kern, Calif., High School District.

Rosengard should know. Last fall, when Kern enrolled 7,500 freshmen from more than 20 different K-8 school districts, student data from these districts were forwarded in a wide range of formats.

Problems such as these are the main catalyst behind the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF), a Microsoft-led initiative that aims to establish the standard that has thus far been lacking in the K-12 technology industry (see cover story, page 1).

The initiative had the support of 18 other companies as of late February, when Microsoft chairman and CEO Bill Gates announced the framework at the AASA conference in New Orleans.

According to Manish Sharma, Microsoft’s representative to the SIF working group, corporate interest in the initiative picked up just after the Gates announcement. Missing notables such as Apple and Oracle are said to be considering whether to participate.

Sharma said the specification will be posted on the SIF web site and can be used by any vendor that wants to comply with the framework. That’s when vendors and administrators will find out if SIF will truly become a standard for the educational technology industry.

Though hopeful, some observers–including Aggen–have their doubts. “I just don’t know how you’re going to get all those vendors aboard one boat,” Aggen said.

While not a vendor itself, e-school.edu does have some influence with the software developers it works with, Aggen said, adding that the firm will definitely encourage those vendors to support the new framework. “It would do nothing but benefit our school district partners,” he said.

With Microsoft’s clout behind the effort, SIF promises at least to make more noise than previous efforts such as SPEEDE/ExPRESS. If enough vendors agree to use the specification, the initiative could very well prove to be an important missing link for schools wrestling with incompatible systems.

e-school.edu inc.

http://www.e-school-edu.com

HTE Education Solutions

http://www.hteinc.com/education/education.html

Educational Technologies Software & Services Inc.

http://www.etss.com

Harrison School District

http://www.harrison.k12.co.us

DataCard Corp.

http://www.datacard.com