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Launching a district data warehousing project

A redesign of a school district’s information systems is always a challenge, but Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools (WSFCS) was further complicated by rapid growth, changing demographics and school choice. WSFCS is the fifth-largest system in North Carolina, with 80 schools and approximately 52,000 students and 8,000 teachers and administrators. The system gains about 500 students a year, so new schools are regularly being opened.

In a district with significant ethnic and socio-economic diversity, it is critical to have more than percentages and summaries of student achievement, but to know which students and teachers might need extra help. Distribution of students changes, sometimes markedly. Parents can choose from their neighborhood schools, another school in their zones, or from 15 magnet programs.

Despite dynamic growth and change, and faced with a hodgepodge of disparate data sources and ad hoc processes, WSFCS was able to create a unified information infrastructure that now delivers meaningful, interactive, visual reports to support data-driven decisions. How did we do it?

Redefining the information environment

Find and evaluate the current data sources.
Five years ago, the WSFCS director of accountability, superintendent and director of curriculum spent a year studying the district’s different data sources. The result was scary. The data was everywhere, fragmented and overlapping. They needed to pull all of it together.

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Establish an authoritative source for data.
When an initiative like this is launched, everybody thinks their data system is the authoritative source. We found that what should have been the same report would show different information because it had come from two different data sources. My group had some difficult conversations to convince people to trust a single source.

Determine what information is needed, in what form.
We frequently consulted the leadership team and asked administrators to identify the reports and data they needed. Administrators emphasized clean data and drill-down capabilities – right down to individual student performance.  Instead of making assumptions, they consulted elementary, middle and high school principals to identify and help develop the most important reporting tools.

Cleanse and validate the data.
The databases ranged from having excellent to unusable data. Some databases were eliminated. The existing databases contained duplicate records, inconsistent data entry conventions and missing elements. We selected analytics provider SAS to consolidate and cleanse the data. In addition to improving the quality of analysis and reports, data cleansing brought some ancillary benefits:

  • By ensuring that address information conformed to USPS requirements for mass mailings, the district dramatically reduced the number of returned letters and saved $5,000 on one mailing alone.
  • Matching siblings reduced the mailing list to 41,000 households and helped with both the Free/Reduced Lunch Program application process and identifying siblings for the Parent Assistant program.


Create repeatable data integration routines.
Even though data integration jobs are shown in a graphical display, the tool is creating code in the background at the same time. A programmer can hard-code what needs to be reported and can come back to it at any time to use again. Automated data integration proved its value for streamlining repetitive data integration tasks, such as bringing in the nightly data set from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

Publish the data in an easy-to-use, easy-to-understand format.
I wanted our interfaces to be as simple as possible for principals and district leaders.  We needed to put data in an interactive, web-based reporting with drill-down capabilities with easy navigation.  Now, we store report processes and make them available for users, who access real-time information through a portal.

Establish best practices for data collection and requests.
So often people would want a report immediately, not understanding it could take days to build it out. It didn’t matter. Everybody wants data and they want it now.

My team implemented a process where users have to put in a ticket, just like if their computer was broken. From the superintendent to newspaper reporters to the grants people, we require them to submit a ticket. Tickets help us track in-process and pending requests, identify duplicated efforts, and manage users’ expectations.

Insights on demand, just a click or two away

A data warehouse provides a secure location to house a broad array of data – from student demographics to individual test scores to summaries for AYP reporting. Our first initiatives focused on school improvement and rapid evaluation of programs.

Interactive reports with drill-down capabilities.
A walk-through of a sample course enrollment report would go something like this:

Choose a course from a pull-down menu to display a chart of course enrollment by teacher. Zoom in on one teacher to see she has 55 students and teaches Algebra 1. Let’s say the user knows from value-add reports that this teacher is faring poorly, so they look at her student performance.

Drill down to see which students are in her classes, click on or enter a student name, which provides a complete, detailed profile. Student achievement, test score data from grades three to 12, absences, discipline record – it’s all right there. There is no need to go to a file cabinet, or teacher, or data manager to get the information.

The same drill-down capabilities bring new value to the AYP report, which is now available for daily monitoring (or for a specific date range), not just for end-of-year reporting. A bar chart shows subgroups relative to the AYP threshold. Immediately an administrator can look at detail for subgroups. They can drill down to look more closely at an underperforming subgroup. By knowing where students are struggling, instruction choices can be made to help them meet AYP goals.

District wide student locator application

Previously, every school maintained its own roster of students. In a choice system, a child could have come from any number of schools. The district found elementary school kids were being dropped off at high schools. Administrators needed a way to quickly look up a phone number. What a simple concept – but with the previous data islands, it was very difficult.

We created a student locator, so any administrator across the system can pull up a list of all the kids, identify a student, drill down to see who he is living with, emergency contact information, etc, to get that child safely to where he needs to be.

That report is one of the most popular. It seems so simple, but it required compiling data across the system for 52,000 students.

There are plenty of opportunities ahead. The data team is expanding the repository of reports to support data-driven decision making, and using data integration tools to automate jobs for other recurring requests. Administrators are using these reports, and they’re hungry for more. By focusing on what decision makers need, we feel like we are a critical piece of making all of our students and schools successful.

Dr. Betty Weycker is the Assistant Superintendent for Technology for North Carolina’s Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School System . Dr. Weycker believes it is imperative that technology is utilized and embraced as a resource for both curriculum and data management/analysis. Development of a state of the art infrastructure for technology has been critical in her vision to leverage resources available and to align more opportunities for partnerships and collaboration with businesses, foundations, and other agencies.

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