Matching potential business partners with schools that need their help has always been a challenge for large school systems. Businesses want to contribute and schools need assistance, but plugging the right resource into the need often is difficult.

It’s a challenge Deborah Antshel faced when she became partnerships director for North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) in 1997. With the help of geographic information systems (GIS) and database software, however, the district has hit upon a unique solution.

“When we were looking for business partners for a school, a staff member would drive the neighborhood around the school, write down the names of businesses, then come back to the office and look them up in the phone book,” Antshel says. “It was an ineffective, inefficient system.”

CMS had no formal process for matching businesses and organizations that already had expressed an interest in collaborating with one of its 139 schools. The result was that school needs often went unmet, and potential partners were frustrated by the time it took to match them with a school.

Antshel realized that CMS needed a quick, efficient, user-friendly system for matching needs and resources. Now, after nearly a year of preparation, the district has implemented a system it calls the School Partnerships Resource Locator (SPRL).

With just a few computer clicks, a school’s needs can be matched with all the businesses or other resources around the school that can fill them. Or, a business or club with labor or materials to offer can be paired instantly with a school that needs its help.

“If Coulwood Middle School calls and says it needs landscaping done, and it has 30 volunteers from Bank of America willing to do the work but no materials and supplies, we can punch the name of the school into the computer and it will tell us all the landscaping businesses located within five miles of the school,” Antshel explains. “A process that once would have taken days is completed in minutes.”

SPRL was developed using MapObject, a Visual Basic add-on with GIS capabilities developed by Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., in Redlands, Calif.

The application itself has a Windows-like screen appearance. The layout includes a map display, a toolbar for pan and zoom capabilities, a text box for school identification, and two tabs that hold school report and resource search functions.

SPRL is a point-and-click application. The user selects a school by typing the school’s name in the text box or by clicking on the school on the map display.

While using SPRL is simple, creating the application was a long, sometimes tedious process that took more than 300 hours, says Matthew Crisp, a GIS systems analyst for Mecklenburg County.

The biggest challenge was data collection, Crisp says. More than 20 data coverages are assessed in the application. For example, the school system provides the school locations; the city of Charlotte’s Engineering Department identifies street locations; the Park and Recreation Department identifies parks; the county’s Public Service Department supplies information on hospitals; the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission establishes neighborhood boundaries; the Board of Election supplies state and local political districts; and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department identifies public housing projects and other key information.

Each school determines its specific needs for volunteers, specialized expertise, or materials and supplies. Those needs are cataloged and entered into the system by county systems analysts.

Plotting businesses was the most time-consuming task, Crisp says. Using records from the County Tax Office, planners identified more than 6,000 businesses in Mecklenburg County. The police department identified adult-oriented businesses that would be inappropriate as school partners, and those businesses were eliminated.

For every CMS school, SPRL now can identify surrounding businesses (by category); the city, county, and state political districts the schools are located in and the office-holders who represent them; and police and fire stations, libraries, places of worship, parks, public housing, hospitals, and health department clinics serving the surrounding area.

“SPRL offers us a gold mine of potential partnerships and a very focused catalog of each school’s needs,” says Antshel. “Now, our energy can be focused on actually meeting those needs, rather than searching blindly for new partners or going back to the same supporters again and again.”

For now, access to the system is limited to analysts at the county offices, Crisp says, but the school system’s central office soon will be networked, allowing Antshel and her staff to access the information directly.

SPRL already is getting national attention. Antshel and Crisp have made presentations to the National Association of Counties, the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association, and other groups.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

http://www.cms.k12.nc.us/