Before administrators for the 8,300-student Fayetteville Public School District in Arkansas decided where to build their new K-7 school, they set out to find the perfect location–one that would benefit the greatest number of families while causing the least disruption in traffic patterns and other geographic variables. The decision proved to be an easy one, thanks to the aid of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology.

Fayetteville joins a host of forward-thinking school systems from coast to coast that have begun adopting GIS technology to provide a data-driven approach to planning everything from potential construction sites to school district zoning and citywide busing routes. In Fayetteville’s case, district officials even have used the technology to take advantage of thousands of dollars in state tax breaks.

Working out of Arkansas’s booming Northwest region, a portion he describes as “the economic engine of the state,” Fayetteville Superintendent Bobby New said he’s come to rely heavily on GIS technology to assist him in all phases of district planning and development. From redrafting school boundaries to maximize the potential revenue from state tax breaks, to picking potential school sites that make the best sense for the community, the geographic tool has become a central cog in the district’s decision-making processes, New said.

Unlike Global Positioning Systems (GPS)–the satellite-aided technology used by a growing number of administrators to help pinpoint the exact location of school buses–GIS technology is not a honing device. Rather, its function is reserved for the complex task of sorting and layering analytical data used to understand the physical and environmental challenges posed by different geographic locations, such as potential school building sites, for example.

Resembling a digital color-coded map, the district’s GIS user interface provides New with a doctor’s X-ray view into the school system’s physical anatomy, allowing him to see everything from the potential impact of upstart housing projects on the community and the percentage of at-risk students enrolled in a given school to the presence of accessible water and sewer lines at proposed building sites.

“It really is an amazing tool,” said New, who admits he was skeptical about using GIS technology at first. When district Technology Coordinator Susan Cromwell first approached him about investing in a GIS tool for the district, New said he almost slammed the door in her face. But she persisted–and New is grateful. These days, “I don’t know what we’d do without it,” he said. “To be honest with you, it’s probably saved my job on a few occasions.”

In the fall of 2006, Fayetteville plans to open a brand-new combination elementary-middle school, the site for which was chosen based on data provided through the school district’s GIS system.

Michael Gray, Fayetteville’s associate superintendent for operations, said administrators were able to combine different streams of school and geographic data to help plan for everything from the impact of future housing developments and traffic patterns to the placement of school athletic fields.

By layering the different streams of data on top of one another, he said, the GIS map gave school board members, developers, and other stakeholders a chance to see how different variables within the community would affect the school and, ultimately, its students.

The data used in Fayetteville even includes Census information that lets educators see where the district boasts the highest population of at-risk students, for example, enabling district planners to tweak zoning lines to ensure that each school within the system maintains a diverse student population.

“I don’t think it’s something we could live without,” said Gray of the technology. “When you see it on a map, it makes it really easy [to understand].”

So easy, in fact, that when representatives from the neighboring University of Arkansas approached Fayetteville administrators about buying some of the district’s land for construction of a new building, New contends he was able to collect all of the information he needed to ink the deal in the course of a 20-minute telephone conversation. Before, he said, the data would have taken several days to gather and present to stakeholders–but not anymore. The university eventually bought 40.2 acres of land from the school district, a purchase New claims went a long way toward helping pay for the district’s ongoing investment in the technology.

Not only has the technology proved a potential deal-maker for the school system, he said, it’s also helped the district take advantage of thousands of dollars in state tax breaks afforded schools located near major businesses. In one recent case, he said, school officials used the GIS program to redraft district zoning lines after the construction of a new Target department store opened one of its schools to a potential tax incentive.

But even for all the good it reportedly has done, New said the system can’t run itself. That means school districts that want to make good use of the tool probably will have to consider hiring someone whose job it is to cull data from the system and create simplified reports that can be presented at board meetings and wherever decisions are made.

But when done right, it’s worth it, New said of the investment. Thinking back to the Target tax incentive, “Robert probably paid for his salary with that deal alone,” he said, referring to the work of Robert Guadagnini, program manager for Fayetteville’s GIS initiative.

Before the arrival of GIS, New said, administrators and board members made too many decisions based on pure emotion. Now, he said, those decisions are grounded in hard data.

After seeing the technology in action, one school board member reportedly told district technology chief Cromwell, “I feel like I’ve been awakened from a coma.”

For administrators and school board members, she said, very few decisions tend to elicit as much emotion from stakeholders and parents as zoning and new building proposals.

She called the GIS system an analytical tool that demonstrates the “what-ifs.” “It just really helps narrow the decisions,” she explained.

Not only has New used the information he’s received from the school system’s GIS software to make district decisions, he also has used it to make presentations to the mayor’s office and to provide information to local and state legislators about ways to take advantage of the multifaceted tool.

More recently, Fayettville administrators have taken their show on the road, presenting the district’s success with GIS technology at national education conferences such as the National School Board Association’s T+L² show in October and conducting demonstrations with local education agencies throughout the state.

Though Fayetteville might be one of the first school districts in the country to take advantage of GIS technology for planning purposes, it’s not among the first to consider other uses of GIS software in schools.

In November, the National Geographic Society sponsored GIS Day, a day-long, technology-infused extravaganza intended to highlight how teachers and students across the globe might harness the power of GIS technology in the classroom.

Students from remote Eerie County, N.Y., to densely-populated Lansing, Mich., and elsewhere joined educators and fellow students from 72 other countries in a series of GIS seminars designed to demonstrate how the technology is used for everything from tracking presidential elections to pinpointing locations for paramedics and first responders in the event of a crisis situation.

Links:

Fayetteville School District
http://fayar.net

National Geographic Society
http://www.nationalgeographic.com

National GIS Day web site
http://www.gisday.com

More recently, Fayettville administrators have taken their show on the road, presenting the district’s success with GIS technology at national education conferences such as the National School Board Association’s T+L² show in October and conducting demonstrations with local education agencies throughout the state.

Though Fayetteville might be one of the first school districts in the country to take advantage of GIS technology for planning purposes, it’s not among the first to consider other uses of GIS software in schools.

In November, the National Geographic Society sponsored GIS Day, a day-long, technology-infused extravaganza intended to highlight how teachers and students across the globe might harness the power of GIS technology in the classroom.

Students from remote Eerie County, N.Y., to densely-populated Lansing, Mich., and elsewhere joined educators and fellow students from 72 other countries in a series of GIS seminars designed to demonstrate how the technology is used for everything from tracking presidential elections to pinpointing locations for paramedics and first responders in the event of a crisis situation.

Links:

Fayetteville School District
http://fayar.net

National Geographic Society
http://www.nationalgeographic.com

National GIS Day web site
http://www.gisday.com

More recently, Fayettville administrators have taken their show on the road, presenting the district’s success with GIS technology at national education conferences such as the National School Board Association’s T+L² show in October and conducting demonstrations with local education agencies throughout the state.

Though Fayetteville might be one of the first school districts in the country to take advantage of GIS technology for planning purposes, it’s not among the first to consider other uses of GIS software in schools.

In November, the National Geographic Society sponsored GIS Day, a day-long, technology-infused extravaganza intended to highlight how teachers and students across the globe might harness the power of GIS technology in the classroom.

Students from remote Eerie County, N.Y., to densely-populated Lansing, Mich., and elsewhere joined educators and fellow students from 72 other countries in a series of GIS seminars designed to demonstrate how the technology is used for everything from tracking presidential elections to pinpointing locations for paramedics and first responders in the event of a crisis situation.

Links:

Fayetteville School District
http://fayar.net

National Geographic Society
http://www.nationalgeographic.com

National GIS Day web site
http://www.gisday.com