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Focus on school data bolsters case for SIF

As little as a few years ago, the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF)–a solution that allows school software applications from various vendors to share information seamlessly–was making slow headway in the nation’s schools, as many districts took a wait-and-see attitude before spending the money for SIF-certified systems and the hardware and software necessary to make them all work together.

But that’s beginning to change, thanks largely to an increased emphasis on data-driven decision making by federal and state officials. Spurred on by the constant need to track and report on student progress–and the promise of billions of dollars in federal stimulus money for states and schools that use data to improve instruction–a growing number of institutions are adopting SIF to facilitate this process, its creators say.

SIF started about 12 years ago, as school leaders began to realize that an inordinate amount of time was being spent duplicating work: Student information had to be entered into various applications by hand, or custom specifications had to be written to make the importing and exporting of data possible across these applications–wasting valuable IT staff time in managing those nightly or weekly imports and exports.

So a movement began to articulate a set of common definitions for school data and a set of rules for how these data can be shared. The force behind what is now called SIF was the Schools Interoperability Framework Association, or the SIF Association.

The SIF Association explains the common data definitions within the specifications it has created are called “data objects,” and these cover many items that are involved in schools. For example, a student’s name, address, and phone number are part of the “StudentPersonal” data object. Having different software programs understand this common definition of a student makes it possible for them to share this information properly. There are 89 different data objects currently defined, and additional data objects will be defined as the specification matures, the SIF Association says.

Part of the reason school leaders feel such a strong need for a blueprint that allows for diverse applications to interact is because school districts tend to purchase different software applications to fit a variety of needs.

“If you’re buying systems because they fit your needs the best–different systems for your cafeteria, your grade books, your transportation–they don’t all work together,” says Laurie Collins, utilization director for the SIF Association. There are, of course, packages that cover a wide range of applications and work together through proprietary interfaces. “But you wonder: Do they have the expertise to support that wide range?” Collins says. “If you’re working on a library system, you probably want that created by someone who really understands the needs of the library, or if you’re working on transporting students, you want someone who really understands scheduling and routing via a transportation system.”

And gathering different data from all those systems can be unwieldy or downright impossible. Larry Fruth, executive director of the SIF Association, tells a story about when he was working in a school district before his job with the association. The district had not undergone a SIF implementation: “I got a call from a legislator who wanted to know how many kids in our district were on free and reduced lunch, had English as a second language, are bused more than 15 miles to school each day, and didn’t pass their English proficiency the prior year. I laughed. I’d have to go to every school, ask where the info was held, put it all together. … It just wasn’t possible.”

On the other hand, when the data are interoperable, they can be held in many places but accessed from one place, and now such a request would be easy to accommodate, he explains.

How SIF works

Vendors of software such as student information systems or library management systems can become SIF certified through the SIF Association. SIF certification is designed to be a quality-assurance measure that guarantees the software meets the SIF guidelines. The SIF Association outsources the certification process to a third party, which validates that the software does what it says it will do and will be interoperable with other SIF-certified systems.

Rather than have each application vendor try to create a separate connection to every other application, the association has defined the set of rules to share data within a SIF “Zone.” A SIF Zone is a logical grouping of applications, in which software application “agents” communicate with each other through a central communication point–the Zone Integration Server, or ZIS, which generally run in the range of several thousand dollars. Data are shared between applications through a series of standardized messages, queries, and events written in XML and sent using internet protocols. These events are defined by the SIF Specification.

SIF Agents are extensions of each application that serve as the intermediary between the software application and the SIF Zone. SIF Agents are built into some applications, and they can be purchased for others.

The ZIS keeps track of the Agents registered in the Zone and manages transactions between Agents, enabling them to provide data and respond to requests. The ZIS is responsible for all access control, routing, and security within the system.

To begin a SIF implementation, a school district must have at least two systems that are SIF certified and ready to move data, and they must have a ZIS. From that point, whenever the district implements a new application that is SIF certified, it, too, can easily be made interoperable with the existing applications.

For example, Collins explains, imagine a district is using a SIF-certified courseware program. For it to be most effective, it should contain each student’s information. The teacher can enter this information manually for each student, but that isn’t the best use of the teacher’s time. Students can still use the software even if they don’t have their own accounts, but that means their work would be lost when they logged out and left the computer lab for the day. When using SIF and SIF Agents, the students’ names automatically would pre-populate the software. The students can log on under their own accounts, do their work, and save their work–and the next time they visit the computer lab, they could continue their learning from where they had stopped before. “That’s very important for the learning environment,” Collins says.

Or, say the phone number for a specific student changes. With a SIF implementation in place, when you update that number in your student information system, the number would change in every system across the board. If the student has an overdue library book, and the media specialist wants to call the parents to tell them about the fine, the official number on file automatically would be available.

SIF also makes vertical reporting–from the local to the state and federal levels–easier. Data from a variety of sources can easily be pulled together at a single entry point, rather than gathered haphazardly from a number of disparate places.

And educators have begun to learn that, by automating compliance reports, they can focus more of their time on teaching and learning.

Schools find success with SIF

The Northern Lebanon School District in Pennsylvania is a small rural district, with just 2,500 students and limited staff taking on many responsibilities. Data jobs were distributed across many people, with information being entered multiple times in multiple systems. Such multiple entry points led to a greater possibility of entry errors, so the quality of the data was not as high as it should have been.

The district wanted to speed up and streamline the data entry process and improve efficiencies to establish student accounts more quickly. “These are boring, mundane tasks that require careful attention. If they were automated, that would free us to do things that were more challenging–and less boring,” says Sally Bair, technology facilitator for the district.

But there was another reason to consider SIF. Several years ago, the state of Pennsylvania made a commitment to use SIF in its vertical reporting to the federal government at some point in the future. “We wanted to be ready when the state was ready and be among the first to move the data. That would make life easier at the state level and for the end users back in the districts. If applications have all the [information] that needs to be a piece of state reporting, and you have all the connections in place, then the data can just be pulled and moved, and that would be very powerful,” Bair explains. “It’s a good investment for the taxpayer, it streamlines workloads, and improves the quality of data.”

The district decided to implement SIF and began the process two years ago.

“We had to make some hardware changes. We needed to move our home drives to one location, and that meant redoing Active Directory so that everyone’s home drive would be mapped to its new location,” Bair says. Some organizational units within Active Directory had to be redone: Instead of having a folder within a folder within a folder within a folder (four levels), the structure had to be made more “flat.” When that was done, the district bought a custom-built Zone Integration Server (at a total cost of less than $5,000) and then began testing its existing SIF Agents and getting the applications to talk to each other in the background.

“We didn’t go live with them. We just tested them at that point. We waited until the rollover [between school years], then started bringing up our applications. We could go rather quickly [then], because we had tested them all,” Bair says.

The district started by getting its student information system (PowerSchool from Pearson School Systems) talking to Follett Destiny, which it used for library management. Microsoft Active Directory came next, then food services (eTritionWare Meal Tracker). Now, the district is buying a SIF Agent for every school in order to implement its athletic directory software (Schedule Star Athletic Director).

When an accounting clerk enters information for a new student, the data flow automatically to the food services and library systems. Active Directory automatically creates the student’s account, with a login and password. “In the past, I can’t even say how many steps that would have taken,” Bair says.

The district’s health system isn’t automated with SIF yet, because its software is still in the process of becoming SIF certified.

The Northern Lebanon School District has spent about $13,000 so far on its SIF implementation and estimates that it has saved more than $47,500.

Staff members have gained time that now can be focused on other responsibilities. For example, the network administrator, instead of generating and updating network accounts, can use that time to address network responsibilities more quickly. Manual processes for extracting, uploading, updating, and modifying data have been replaced with secure, standards-based automation. And data in all systems are cleaner as a result of SIF.

Bair advises that districts learn as much as they can about SIF up front if they are considering an implementation. When purchasing new applications, even if a SIF implementation isn’t immediately in the cards, Bair suggests those applications be SIF certified nonetheless. “I thought of getting involved with SIF way back in the beginning, but because of inadequate time, I couldn’t do it,” she explains. “But I made sure as we purchased systems that they would be SIF certified.” That, she says, has made the implementation much more cost-effective and has allowed the district to move more quickly.

The Pasadena Independent School District in Texas also made sure that every new application it bought in recent years was SIF certified. The large district–it has 52,000 students–depended on a mainframe system developed in-house, but the administration wanted to transition to a more modern system. Staff agreed that no single system could fulfill all the needs of teachers, staff, and administrators.

Pasadena decided to deploy various software solutions from multiple vendors. “We chose the best-of-breed in each area based on our requirements, then figured out how to integrate them afterward,” says Bob Daughrity, chief technology officer for the district.

The district now uses Chancery SMS as its student information system and Lawson Business Solutions for financials, payroll, and human resources. Every application that included a SIF Agent is now being used in the district’s SIF implementation. For those vendors whose applications did not include a SIF Agent–such as GradeSpeed, its teacher grade book, and NUTRIKIDS, its food service management tool–the district is working with them to develop a SIF Agent.

After bringing a number of these applications in, and getting them up and running, Pasadena knew it would be a bigger challenge to run them all than it could handle on its own. “We began to look at implementing SIF sooner rather than later,” Daughrity says. In 2007, the district chose SIF implementation partner Mizuni to install the Zone Integration Server (about $5,000) and to install its Chancery SMS Agent.

Pasadena considers itself a data-driven district. The data it collects are used to improve instruction and boost student achievement. “Data reliability and integrity, and being able to report and utilize that data for analysis purposes, are very important to us,” says Daughrity. “Now we can gather data across multiple systems very quickly and use those data in applying for and receiving stimulus funding.”

Daughrity cautions that it’s important to pick the right partners when implementing SIF. “You have to select a partner that understands your district’s business requirements and understands K-12 related applications very well,” he says. “We talk to other schools that are a year into their implementation and they’re still not done. It shouldn’t take that long.”

School districts reap multiple rewards from implementing SIF, and the technology-related benefits–such as streamlining reporting and improving data quality–are the least of them, says the SIF Association’s Fruth. “The bulk of what SIF does is impact school decision making,” he explains. “The ability to pull data from various sources is critical.”

Daughrity agrees that SIF has enhanced decision making at all levels. “We utilize data and … trend analysis in all the decisions we make, and with a SIF interface in place, we can collect those data and make decisions quickly,” he says. For example, to assess where students are in the learning process, and to make decisions regarding their education, teachers and administrators want easy access to information such as attendance, behavior patterns, and assessment data. A data warehouse that is updated continuously throughout the day gives multiple analysis points to help educators make those decisions on a real-time basis.

Having data at their fingertips helps teachers do their jobs better, says Fruth, and that’s the ultimate goal of any teacher.

“There will be some hiccups,” Bair warns. “There’s a significant amount of work to do, but I absolutely recommend that school districts invest in SIF.”

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