New technology brings glitches

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Chicago Public Schools’ conversion to a new student information system is running into technical glitches, an echo of what has happened in other districts.

This fall, four high schools—Foreman in Portage Park, Jones in the South Loop, Michele Clark in Austin and Lindblom in West Englewood—began using the new system, called IMPACT (Instructional Management Program and Academic Communication Tool). Ten elementary schools began using it as well.

The technology will make it easier and quicker for schools to track attendance, schedule classes, transfer student records and carry out other administrative tasks. Later this year, the new system will allow teachers to analyze student performance and make it easier to transfer special education records between schools. Other districts around the country are undergoing similar conversions because of the data requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The new system has a lot of plusses to it, but there’s a lot of getting used to,” says Frank Candioto, principal of Foreman High.

Robert Runcie, chief information officer, says that only three or four people in central office understood the old system’s inner workings. “Information was all in people’s heads. That was a huge risk for this district.”

Problems here and elsewhere

The problems that have cropped up in Chicago and elsewhere stem from student information software purchased from Pearson School Systems in New Jersey. The Pearson software, widely used in other large districts, caused problems ranging from error-filled report cards in Howard County, Md., to students being assigned to the wrong classes for weeks in Orange County, Fla. The Houston Independent School District spent nearly $600,000 in overtime and had to reissue thousands of report cards.

“We’re still working out the bugs and things are improving, but it has been difficult in the early stages,” says Terry Abbot, a spokesperson for the Houston district.

In Chicago, the most serious snag so far has been with tracking class cutting. Runcie says his office has corrected part of the problem. At press time, it had been resolved at Jones, says Principal Donald Fraynd.

At Foreman, attendance officer Jerry Mash realized that the system did not flag the fact that one young man had cut his first-semester classes 90 times. “I should have been able to catch [that] earlier in the year,” he says. At Michele Clark High, one staff person was assigned to manually track cuts full time, a job that would have been handled automatically by the old software, according to scheduler Tenesha Hatter.

Other problems cited by schools: The new software does not include student ID pictures (making it more difficult to learn names) and cannot produce summaries of class data.

However, such glitches are almost inevitable in any large-scale conversion, according to Ann Flynn, director of education technology for the National School Boards Association. “It’s sort of the nature of the beast.”

No more green books

The district has already resolved some snags, such as reports that wouldn’t print or information that appeared in the wrong fields. Administrators are optimistic that all the problems can be smoothed out by next fall.

One feature that operates smoothly and has elicited enthusiastic reviews is the automated scheduling of high school classes.

“No more sitting down with a piece of paper with boxes on it trying to figure out who can teach when and where. The software does that for you,” explains Hatter, who says that the new software saved her two or three days of work. “I absolutely love that.”

Teachers can also record class attendance online, doing away with the ubiquitous “green books” and making CPS one of the last districts in the state to eliminate paper attendance records. In elementary schools, grades will now be recorded on the computer instead of in paper files.

Despite the problem, principals in the pilot agree that it was time for a change.

Fraynd likens those who understood the old system to a secret priesthood, in which nothing was documented and knowledge was passed down orally. “You would please the people who understood the mainframe [so they] would do you favors.”