When officials at the New York City Department of Education decided to build an in-house computer database to handle the transcripts, schedules, and academic records of the district’s more than 300,000 high school students, the idea was to create a system that would work seamlessly across the region, providing reliable, unfettered access to important student information–no matter what.

That was the idea, anyway.

But the investment hasn’t quite worked out the way officials in the nation’s largest public school system had hoped. Since its initial launch earlier in the school year, educators and counselors alike have complained the program–which the school system spent an estimated $5.1 million to develop–is riddled with bugs and is ill-equipped to handle the massive influx of requests made throughout the district.

The problem reportedly came to a head during the recent college application season, when several students complained that the system failed to provide them with accurate transcripts and other data necessary to complete their applications. In January, officials also reported difficulty printing official report cards.

First reported in a column in The New York Times March 16, the story provides a lesson for school districts across the country, as officials look to weigh the risks of large-scale do-it-yourself technology projects against the constraints and initial sticker-shock of available off-the-shelf solutions.

Back in the Big Apple, officials predicted the new system–called HSST, for High School Scheduling and Transcripts–would enable educators to more readily access important student information at the click of a keyboard.

Before HSST, administrators said, the job of preparing official transcripts and documents was outsourced to the City University of New York–for which the district reportedly paid approximately $6 million, annually. Though reliable, officials said, the system was slow–documents could take a week, sometimes longer, to arrive.

"The idea was that we needed a more centralized, streamlined solution that would help us share data across schools," said district spokeswoman Margie Feinberg in an interview with eSchool News. Though the district considered several third-party student information systems before deciding to build the program in-house, she said, none of the options were scalable to the district’s vast array of needs–especially its push for equal access at all 300 high schools citywide.

 

"We believe this system will help us do that," she said of HSST, though she could not recall the other products the district evaluated.

Despite Feinberg’s enthusiasm, the Times reports that counselors and administrators have been slow to warm up to the technology. Some say it has stranded them with inaccurate returns and crashed when they needed information most.

"It’s been horrendous," Angela Reformato, a guidance counselor at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn told the newspaper. "We’re hindered recommending students for scholarships because we can’t get class ranks. Or a whole class appears on a transcript and then disappears. Or the computer won’t let you do a program change. And you can’t do it by hand. Your hands are tied. It causes complete confusion."

According to news accounts, demands on the system routinely overwhelmed the district’s servers–so much so that the Education Department was forced to send out a letter imploring educators to use the system only during designated "off-peak" hours–a request that excluded any time during the normal school day.

Adding to frustrations, the Times reported, the district failed to give authorized users the appropriate log-in information required to access the system from home–a fact that didn’t sit well with guidance counselor Maura McGovern.

"I’m supposed to use the system at 11 o’clock at night?" she asked in an interview with Times columnist Samuel Freedman. "Excuse me, but I’m supposed to be at home at 11, not here. I don’t have a cot in the basement. I like our custodians; they’re nice guys, but I’d rather have the cat at the end of my bed, purring when I roll over."

Looking back at the initial implementation, Chief Information Officer Irwin Kroot conceded to the Times that the system "wasn’t stress-tested appropriately," but stuck by the district’s investment in the project, vowing to "alleviate all of the problems for the fall."

Links:

New York City Department of Education
http://www.nycenet.edu/