SchoolMAX cited in back-to-school nightmare

"We knew there were students still missing their schedules before school started," said PGCPS Supt. William Hite.
"We knew there were students still missing their schedules before school started," said PGCPS Supt. William Hite.

It’s every administrator’s nightmare: Thousands of students arrive on the first day of school with no schedule and nowhere to go…and parents, teachers, and the news media are shouting questions, demanding to know who’s to blame.

Thanks to what school officials claim was malfunctioning software, this nightmare became a reality for Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), in suburban Washington, D.C.

On Aug. 24, more than 8,000 students who attend high schools in PGCPS were left without schedules and placed by school administrators into makeshift holding facilities, such as gymnasiums and cafeterias. On Aug. 27, almost 2,000 students were still stranded. And parents and students weren’t happy.

As school officials tell it, the problem arose from a perfect storm: malfunctioning centralized student software, poor IT planning, and one of the largest schools districts in the U.S.

Go back to last year, when the storm clouds were first beginning to gather. PGCPS implemented the $4.1 million SchoolMAX system—an enterprise Student Information System (SIS)—to streamline its student operations.

With the implementation of SchoolMAX, administrators said, systems began to produce shaky results, especially in the area of grading.

According to PGCPS Chief Information Officer Wesley Watts, the district was using two different versions of Mygradebook, and both were managed locally by school administrators. “We wanted a centralized system where we could collect all grading data,” explained Watts during a press conference, “so we let SchoolMAX handle that.”

That was an error, according to accounts posted by a public social networking group on Facebook called “SCHOOLMAX SUCKS!!!! AND I HATE IT!!!!” The group, with more than 4,000 members, reportedly created by persons familiar with Eleanor Roosevelt High School in PGCPS, says some student grades were lost, and some were issued with errors, such as reporting that a student received an ‘E’ instead of an ‘A,’ all of which resulted in furious parents and students.

Some high school seniors even had to manage their transcripts so colleges wouldn’t misinterpret the effects of the software glitch.

It wasn’t until the beginning of June, however, when the clouds began to turn ominously dark. According to Watts, PGCPS considered SchoolMAX capable of handling not only grading but schedules as well. Indeed, the SchoolMAX web site clearly strives to create that expectation:

“With SchoolMAX Enterprise, you can integrate your academic requirements, material resources, student performance data and constraints, and allow the scheduler to mediate all the conflicts. SchoolMAX Enterprise’s dynamic scheduler allows the creation of the most workable, efficient student, teacher, and class schedules.” SchoolMAX has 76 clients, it is reported, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school systems in the U.S. after New York City.

Even so, SchoolMAX school-district clients in Georgia, Rhode Island, and New Mexico reportedly have all gone on the record claiming that SchoolMAX software is either not user friendly or crashes frequently.

Regardless of these warning signs (Watts even told reporters SchoolMAX had crashed multiple times since implementation), PGCPS went ahead and rolled out SchoolMAX’s scheduling capabilities.

In June, Watts said problems began occurring with the software as it tried to handle scheduling. Multiple patches were needed, and their installation delayed PGCPS staff in their scheduling work.

One student from Eleanor Roosevelt High School–identified only as Melinda B.–began asking questions and took some notes on how her school enters scheduling information.

“Every year,” she wrote, “our scheduling coordinator at Roosevelt, Mr. Horn, starts working on entering schedules into the system from February to July. He enters the schedules into a computer program called ‘The Scheduler.’ Every year, The Scheduler is only able to automatically enter the schedules of about 75% of the students; the other 25%, which is about 600-700 students, have scheduling issues that the program can’t fix on its own,” explains Melinda B. “When this happens, the program leaves the schedule in the system incomplete and moves on to the next one. This is where Mr. Horn comes in. Mr. Horn, from July to August, sits with The Scheduler and works out the remaining 25% of the students’ schedules. By the time school starts back up, he has most of the students’ schedules worked out. The remaining students go to the auditorium and wait for their schedules to be finished; the average student’s schedule takes 5-10 minutes to be entered into the system.”

She continues, “Now, this year, the county wanted him to use SchoolMAX for Eleanor Roosevelt’s scheduling. The program, which he was only able to start using in May, was able to get 77% of the student’s schedules in. However, SchoolMAX, not being able to work out the remaining [23%] of the schedules, removed them completely from the system instead of leaving them incomplete. Because of this, Mr. Horn had to enter and work out the missing schedules from scratch. They didn’t want him doing this over the summer, however, because they were working on the program, which apparently required it to be down the entire time. Now, instead of Mr. Horn getting to work in late June/early July, they allowed him into the program on August 7th. This left him with 17 days to attempt to do what usually takes him more than two months. In addition, SchoolMAX’s scheduling program is incredibly slow compared to The Scheduler. Instead of 5-10 minutes for a schedule to be registered in the system, it now can take up to 45 minutes. In conclusion, the No Child Left Behind Act left behind about 631 students yesterday at Roosevelt.”

Watts confirmed this information to reporters on Thursday, saying that when SchoolMAX was finally working properly after numerous patches, it deleted incomplete student schedules from the system. Staff then had only three weeks to re-enter and fix thousands of student schedules.

He also confirmed that the Student Information System PGCPS uses can automatically and correctly enter only about 70 to 80 percent of all student schedules. He says this is consistent with other districts.

“We knew there were students still missing their schedules before school started,” said William Hite, superintendent of PGCPS, during the press conference. “But we didn’t know the exact number until Monday when school started.”

Some contend the school system knew the extent of the scheduling problem all along, yet did nothing to warn parents or students.

“Oh, they knew before,” charged Mary Nusser, president of the Parent-Teacher-Student Organization (PTSO) during an ABC 7 News interview. “Why they didn’t delay school opening I’ll never know.”

Hite says one of the lessons he and his staff have learned from this situation is to provide better notification to those enrolled, teachers, parents, and the community.

Hite says it was a combination of technology errors and human errors–entering data incorrectly or not completely.

Another major human error was the backup system. In this case, there was no back up system. When asked during the press conference about what backup system PGCPS has in place for problems that may arise, Watts replied, “Well, the back up is that we’d go in by hand and fix the schedule student by student.”

ABC 7 News coverage of PGCPS

Filling in the blanks

Students, parents, and media have all been asking the same questions: If Watts and PGCPS knew there would be major scheduling issues before school opening, why was no one notified and why was the district left open? How could the superintendent not know about these problems until the first day of school? And finally, how could a district as large as PGCPS have no back-up system?

“To have more than 8,000 high school students out of class on the first day is inexcusable,” Hite acknowledged during the press conference. “I want to offer my sincere apologies to the students, families, and staff of PGCPS for the severe disruption to the school year that these scheduling difficulties have imposed.”

According to Supt. Hite, the district is now reviewing its contract with SchoolMAX and deciding whether to seek damages.

“Our top priority right now is to get students into classrooms so that they can get their instruction,” said Hite.

Hite also told reporters that Saturday school would be offered through the month of September to those students who could not attend their correct classes and had to start late. He also said after-school programs would be made available. Neither the Saturday school nor the after-school programs are mandatory, said Hite.

Hite said that the remaining 1, 914 students without schedules would be in classrooms by Aug. 31 at the latest–thanks to the fast training of central district staff who have been working around-the-clock to enter student schedules.

But students are complaining that even though they are in classes, they are not always the right ones.

For example, according to interviews with The Washington Post, students reported that classrooms were crowded and many students didn’t belong to the right class.

A student who hadn’t taken Japanese I was assigned to Japanese 4. A student with dreadlocks was assigned to JROTC but was hesitant to go because he was worried he would have to cut his hair.

One student at Bowie High School wrote on Facebook “We basically are going 2 school 4 no point wut so ever. we are wasting time going 2 are fake teachers and fake classes, doing fake work or nothing at all, for nothing at all. 2 of the classes i already took and the others you have 2 take another class before you can get in 2 it (which btw i never took those classes) so i am sitting in class either doing nothing…or the teacher is making us do work that im never gunna get a grade for…wut a waste or time! this is driving me nuts!”

According to Supt. Hite, PGCPS has learned valuable lessons: “We’ve learned to start this whole process earlier next year, and we’ve learned that you can never have too many trained people in case of back up, and we’ve learned you need bigger bandwidth so that everyone can get onto the SIS at one time if need be, so the system doesn’t slow down.”

As of press time, SchoolMAX had not responded to requests for comment. The SchoolMAX web site contains “success stories” involving installations at several school districts.


Prince George’s County Public Schools


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