When Mark Finstrom, Chief Technology Officer for Highline Public Schools (WA), first integrated data analytic mapping software into his district’s digital toolbox a few years ago, it was to better visualize his district’s data to consider things like potential new school construction or bus routes for approximately 20,000 students. Little did he know he would end up using it for disaster logistics.
In this conversation with eSchool News, Mark demos the GuideK12 Analytics Suite (watch the video below) and suggests ways districts can make better decisions faster.
eSchool News: Give us an example how you would use mapping software pre-pandemic.
MF: We have a group called the Capital Facilities Advisory Committee, which is made up of community residents and we have been meeting for two years, before the pandemic, to talk about boundaries, to select data, to get information. And we would use this to draw these maps. I can go in and actually redraw a map in real time saying, “Well, I want the boundary to be here instead of here. And I’m going to put a middle school right here.” And then the software will tell me how many students are in there, what schools they go to currently, what programs are in their grade levels. And then I can see how many I can actually transfer out of that area and go to another school.
eSN: So how did you find yourself using it once the madness began?
MF: I could immediately identify portions of our student populations without internet access. [pointing at the screen]. You can see that there are clusters. Those clusters really identify the locations where you have more dense populations, which means apartments. Well, now you know, when you get into a large apartment complex, you start running into the issue of Internet connectivity.
I use another product called GoGuardian, which gives me actual locations of a device when it is on the internet. It’ll also give me the IP address of that device if they’re out of the district. This does tell me a little bit more information, because I can use that to decipher whether or not they’re running on Comcast, or if they’re running on T-Mobile or Verizon. Because I know the information, my plans here are to work with the cellular providers and actually put in all the cell towers that are around the area so that I can then start to triangulate where students have the best signal from each provider. I currently have hotspots from two providers and I will have to switch sometimes because the family can’t get signal from and this gives me the opportunity to go between four different providers and get that signal.
eSN: This looks like pretty sophisticated stuff. What do you find are the big benefits?
MF: I don’t know if you are, but I’m very visual. And when I see something on a screen that is in spreadsheet format it’s hard to picture it. But when I drop that data into the map software, it gives me that full picture of the data and it tells me about those kids. I’m looking at traffic patterns, I’m looking at the feeder patterns. I’m looking at programs that might be associated with schools, whether that be a dual language or special needs. And what we try to do is keep within a certain population for maximum capacity, but also for operational capacity.
eSN: So how do you plan to keep using the software in the fall?
MF: Our Department of Ed in Washington State is still defining what school will look like for the next year. We are presented with three options right now and we’re working through those. One is to continue distance learning and have students at home and teachers at home, which presents some unique challenges because we have daycare needs and other things. The staff have their own children and their need to be able to take care of their own children at the same time. And then you have children whose parents might be going back to work. And so they’re in need of service. Then we have a phased-in approach, meaning we’re going to start to bring back certain segments of students. It’s hard to say who that could be—maybe students who are falling behind academically, or maybe our ELL populations.
The last option is bringing them in by grade levels. So that might be starting where we have a class-size reduction. So then we have to think about whether or not there might be a rotation, like an A-B schedule or something for them. And I’m using this mapping program to help us identify the student populations that are inside those areas. I can get it in spreadsheet format too, but mapping gives me other details.
There are other things that I want to do with the software in terms of thinking about the programs that we offer and how we move students through the system. For instance, we use sister schools. So one school might be an English-language school and the sister school might be a Vietnamese equivalent and the students will move between those two schools based upon the program that they’re in and where they live and how they attend. And so we can use that information with our ELL department and relate it to our newcomers and how we engage families. It’s really, really powerful stuff.
Does your district have ideas to share? Send them to KevinHogan@eschoolmedia.com.