HELP! I need a Student Information System! Practical Considerations for Today’s Charter School Leaders

By Chris Lim, Director of Data Management, EdTec 

Originally published April 2013

In the current educational climate, it’s essential that a school has the ability to track, organize and report on its data. From managing day-to-day operations to meeting various reporting requirements, it has become virtually impossible to run a school effectively without an efficient data management system in place. Some schools valiantly try to
manage their data manually, but this approach is both time-consuming and error-prone, and they find themselves reconciling data from several different systems and spreadsheets. Schools that try to get by without an established Student Information System in their first year of operation find it hard enough to understand the reporting requirements, let alone manage all the data that is associated with them.

A Student Information System (SIS) is a software application that a school uses to manage its data. Ideally, an SIS allows a school to efficiently manage and track a number of crucial pieces of its operations, including scheduling, attendance, grading and reporting. For a new charter school operator, choosing the system that best fits the needs of the organization can have a profound effect on how smoothly the school runs.

This spring, we spoke with decision-makers at a handful of both new and established California charter schools about their experiences with data management, in an effort to glean some wisdom from those who have already embarked on the road to SIS evaluation and implementation. We learned that as they grow, high-performing charter schools come to understand the importance of data and how it can help school leaders make better decisions for their schools. We hope the information below helps recently-approved and new schools in their search for the best Student Information System to fit their unique needs. As we’ll learn, just like so many other aspects of the charter world: it’s never one-size-fits-all.

Time’s Up. Put Down Your Calculator.

The San Carlos Charter Learning Center (CLC) was granted the very first California state charter number (#001) in February 1993, making it the oldest charter school in California and one of the oldest charter schools in the United States. Stacy Emory, Director of Curriculum and Resources, explains the value of an SIS for her school: “Even with basic tasks like pulling up a class list, or having a way to track student medical information with something other than paper binders, having an SIS made all of these routine tasks easier and allowed us to focus on more important things.” Given all of the other resource constraints charter schools typically face, manual data management isn’t the best use of any staff member’s time.

It’s often hard for teachers and administrators to understand why so much data needs to be collected and how it all really matters at the end of the day. There are many answers, but one simple one: Reporting poor data to the CA Department of Education (CDE) can have disastrous implications for a school’s funding stream. Failing to report data to the CDE in a timely manner can be grounds for a charter to be revoked. Not having key student performance data readily available can severely reduce a school’s chances of a successful renewal.

For a new charter school, mulling through the various SIS options and choosing the best fit can be a daunting task. Financial costs aside, there are a number of other factors that schools must consider when trying to figure out which Student Information System is the best fit for the school and its stakeholders. Laurie Inman, Chief Executive and Academic Officer at Apple Academy Charter Public Schools in Los Angeles, which opened in fall 2012, says, “An SIS allows for many functions to be done much more efficiently. I would never suggest a manual route over having an SIS – it is neither cost-effective nor the best use of human resources.”

Although a student information system isn’t a panacea, it should be the cornerstone of any school’s data strategy. An SIS will be the main system of record when it comes to students, teachers and staff, which will ultimately flow to any other systems a school uses.

It Has To Work for Everybody

One crucial thing to understand when evaluating SIS options is that the system must work for an assortment of end-users, not just school leadership. Heather Berkley, Systems Project Manager at Aspire Public Schools, explained how their organization defined system evaluation criteria based on the use cases for each of their major end-user groups:

  1. For Office Managers – focus on enrollment & attendance verification functionality
  2. For Teachers – focus on gradebook, report card and attendance-taking
  3. For Registrar & Administrative Staff – focus on course catalog, transcript and discipline management
  4. For District – focus on ensuring the SIS can capture data that may be required from the authorizer as a part of any MOU they have with the school
  5. For Everyone – focus on mass import/export and mass update functionality, full access to import/export data, site stability, scalability and support services

Berkley noted that mass handling functionality is hugely important because without it, schools end up spending considerably more time on basic functions – scheduling, attendance reconciliation, and contact updates. Additionally, the interface itself must be a user-friendly experience with functionality organized in an intuitive manner to ease the training and adoption burden. After all, everybody in your organization will be coming in with different kinds of knowledge and different levels of tech-savvy. It’s crucial that everybody who will be working with the SIS feels comfortable and that you take all those different responsibilities, personalities and capabilities into account.

Compliance Broke the Camel’s Back

In California, average daily attendance, or ADA, accounts for as much as 60% of a school’s annual funding. The process for reporting ADA can vary from school to school depending on the school’s authorizer, the type of program offered (site-based vs. independent study, etc.) and the grade levels served. Since attendance makes up such a large percentage of a school’s total funding, school leaders need to evaluate whether they can report their school’s attendance accurately while meeting all the necessary compliance requirements.

One of the first things to confirm when evaluating an SIS is whether or not it supports the State data reporting system, known as CALPADS here in California. San Carlos Charter Learning Center’s Stacy Emory explains, “As the demand for data has increased from the state, having a central place where we can easily pull out the data we need has become more and more valuable over time. It’s also extremely important to know that our SIS routinely stays up to date with all of these State data reporting requirements.”

CALPADS was created to meet federal requirements as outlined in No Child Left Behind and brought about a number of changes in the scope and the methods in which data must be reported to the State. Starting in 2009, California began requiring schools to submit student-level data to CALPADS. In addition to student data, CALPADS now asks for staff-level data, course enrollment and completion data, discipline data and more. Tracking all this data and understanding the relationship between the different sets of data can be onerous for even the most seasoned data analysts.

The best Student Information Systems have reporting mechanisms that allow schools to extract the data that needs to be reported for each of the various submissions.  More importantly, the better systems will produce extracts that are in a format that can be read by CALPADS.  In addition, some systems have built-in tools that allow a user to identify missing data or flag data that violates specific “business rules” in CALPADS. To an office manager or an administrative clerk, these tools become invaluable very quickly.

One area that is often overlooked is a vendor’s commitment to keeping their SIS up-to-date with the state’s requirements. As Aspire’s Heather Berkley notes: “Continuous product development to remain current with the changing state requirements and customer requested enhancements is essential.” If a vendor doesn’t keep up with the requirements, you may end up working with a system that isn’t able to pull the data you need, or even worse, pull incorrect data. Lack of ongoing support along these lines can end up meaning more work for your school staff if the data coming out of your system can’t be reasonably relied upon. Given the stakes involved, a school can’t afford to get a system that is only partially supported or inconsistently supported.

TOP COMPLIANCE QUESTIONS TO ASK SIS VENDORS:

·         Can teachers take attendance simply and effectively with the system?

·         Does the system provide tools to evaluate whether attendance is being submitted?

·         Does the system have tools to identify and resolve attendance errors?

·         Can the system generate weekly attendance rosters?

·         Can the system generate monthly attendance summaries and supporting detail reports?

·         Does the system allow you to configure how attendance is being calculated and reported?

Your Model Determines Your System

School leaders often ask the EdTec Data team: “What’s the best Student Information System out there?” The most honest answer is, “It depends.” Charter schools come in all different shapes and sizes and on top of that, they each choose a different approach when it comes to educating their students. Given this variability, an SIS that works for one type of school could be a complete disaster for another.  Finding the “best” system is really about finding a system that best fits your school’s instructional model and instructional goals.

Let’s look at the unique SIS needs of a growing charter educational model, full-time independent study…

With a full-time independent study program, students are not instructed inside a classroom but instead are assigned work to be completed outside of the classroom. Often, a student will never physically meet the teacher who has assigned the work to him or her. Nevertheless, a credentialed teacher still evaluates the completed work to determine whether the student should receive academic credit and attendance credit. Clearly, the documentation requirements around independent study are far more burdensome than they are for traditional schools.

For example, independent study schools must keep copies of signed master agreements from each student, a daily work log, and samples of the student’s work. Unfortunately, most Student Information Systems are designed for traditional, site-based schools. For schools that run a full-time independent study program, EdTec typically refer them to an SIS that is designed for independent study programs even if other SIS’s have more features. A system that is designed with independent study schools in mind has built-in functionality to help manage the school’s master agreements with all its students. Such a system would also allow teachers to track gradebook assignments against the master agreement and have functionality for students and parents in keeping a daily activity log. It’s fairly obvious that most site-based schools have no need for this type of functionality, but for independent study schools, it’s a show-stopper if these features are missing. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many features an SIS has if it can’t natively support your school’s core operations and instructional model.

New Kids on the Block:  Common Core and Blended Learning

With the move nationally to Common Core standards, many schools will begin shifting away from a traditional-based grading model to a more standards-based model. If a school chooses to “grade” students based on standards, it’s important that a school chooses an SIS that supports standards-based grading. Most SIS’s should have this functionality available but a school should evaluate how each system approaches it from the standpoint of students, teachers, and administrators. Does the system allow for the level of granularity and flexibility your school may need? Can sub-standards be rolled up to an overall standard score? Can an assignment be associated with multiple standards and vice versa? Can the standards be easily reported out of the system for report cards, progress reports, etc.? The answers to these questions will vary from school to school but knowing the answers to these questions will help you choose the SIS that best fits your grading model.

Finally, there is a growing interest in the charter school space around blended learning models. In a blended learning model, traditional classroom learning is supplemented by online learning and mobile learning. Although the literature is still relatively mixed on how effective this model is, more and more schools are finding ways to incorporate elements of this model into their traditional curriculum. If your school plans to offer a blended learning program, it’s important that you choose a platform that can support the type of program you envision. Given that there are very few SIS’s that can support a blended learning model at the moment, it’s actually more important that you find an SIS that can integrate with the platform you’re using. One of the vendors we reached out to had this to say: “To address the growing demand for blended learning models, we’re committed to developing education content and resources that can be turned on through our various K-12 platforms. Our plans include creating complete interoperability between our SIS and these platforms.” Ultimately, if a school is planning to deliver curriculum through non-traditional methods, it should be looking for an SIS that is open, or at the very least, one that provides a framework for integrating with these other educational support systems.

Hello Operator

Charter schools typically do not have the luxury of hiring a local SIS expert to manage all of their data needs. And no matter how intuitive or user-friendly an SIS may be, school staff will inevitably need help, whether that involves training on new features or troubleshooting everyday issues and software bugs. Therefore, it pays to understand the type and level of support you can expect to get with the purchase of the system in order to get the most out of it. Heather Berkley, at Aspire, notes, “Sufficient customer support is a necessity. We’re putting our trust in a vendor that is responsible for critical student data; it’s imperative that they include training and technical/development staff who will be there to provide the level of service necessary for that.”

Choosing an SIS should be seen as a long-term investment and part of that investment involves making sure resources are available to ensure your staff will have the support necessary to help them succeed.

TOP CUSTOMER SERVICE QUESTIONS TO ASK SIS VENDORS:

·         How comprehensive is the initial training?

·         How can my staff get help?

·         How responsive is the support staff?

·         Are resources such as an online knowledgebase or manual available?

·         Is there a strong community of users we can tap into?

·         Are there vendors who can provide comparable support or training services?

Growing Up Together

You want to choose a system that can grow with your school, so its important to try to anticipate what your school’s unique needs will be a few years down the road. As your school becomes more sophisticated, you may need to adopt additional software tailored to fit specific niches in your program, such as student assessment systems, behavioral management systems, application management systems, and student alert and notification systems. Since the intention is that the SIS you choose will be your system of record for the long haul, it’s important to choose a system that has the infrastructure in place to communicate with all of these other systems. A system that is open and emphasizes interoperability will allow your school to scale its service effectively as your organization grows.

Stacy Emory, Director of Curriculum and Resources at CLC reflects, “We started working with our SIS eight years ago – before that we had nothing, and we lost track of so much data. We’ve been around for 20 years now, and have alumni who are out of college! If we had an SIS from the beginning, we would be able to tap into it now. Unfortunately, we don’t have any records to look at for those students, which also means we can’t look at long-term trends or evaluate the long-term effectiveness of our program.”

In the midst of all the excitement surrounding your initial charter approval, it can be difficult to think about what your school’s needs may look like 3, 5, even 10 years down the line. Still, it’s important to choose vendors who can satisfy your changing needs over time, and to remember that those changes will be coming both internally – from the school itself, and externally – from the District or State level.

So, what if you want to change from one SIS to another SIS down the road? The EdTec Data team gets this question a lot, often from schools that have been in existence for quite some time. Most often, they get excited about some new functionality that’s available in another SIS, or they seem to think another SIS looks easier to use. Although these are definitely valid reasons to consider other systems, they are usually not valid reasons for actually making a switch. Each SIS database, and even the underlying logic of how the data is organized, can differ dramatically from system-to-system. As a result, data does not always migrate cleanly from one SIS to another. Even worse, some data cannot be migrated at all. In the latter case, EdTec has observed situations in which student schedules and student assignment scores from previous years could not be migrated to a new instance of the same SIS. If there is that much data loss from moving data within the same SIS, imagine the potential data loss that can result from migrating data between two different SIS’s. At the end of the day, a school needs to determine whether the new functionality they would get from a new system outweighs the risk to the integrity of their data.

“Why can’t we make it work this way?”   |   Making the Case for Customization

TOP CUSTOMIZATION QUESTIONS TO ASK SIS VENDORS:

·         What is the vendor’s vision towards customization? Is the vendor more end-user centric or vendor-centric in this regard?

·         Does the system allow me to add fields to track information (i.e. student, staff, course) that is unique to my school?

·         Is it easy for me to create customized reports if the ones included by the vendor don’t suit my needs?

·         Does the system allow me to make modifications to the interface or change the user experience?

Not to belabor the point, but, each charter school is unique. Because of this, the ability to customize a system to fit your school’s particular needs can play a big part in deciding which SIS to choose. Customization can be something as simple as being able to set up a field to track data that isn’t included out-of-the-box to something as complex as altering the SIS’s interface and building in new logic around how the data flows through your system. When schools consider purchasing an SIS, they’re usually concerned about the core functionality of an SIS and aren’t necessarily concerned with the need to personalize or customize their experience within their SIS for the first couple of years. But invariably, as a school grows, the school and its various stakeholders will want and need to measure their students in non-traditional ways, or will want to make the experience within their SIS more consistent with the way the school actually operates. This isn’t possible if the SIS doesn’t allow the end-user to control the customization process. When this happens, it often puts a school at the mercy of the vendor when it comes to enhancing their SIS. For example, even if a vendor’s system can be customized, the customization itself will need to be implemented by the vendor and not the end-user – and usually at a cost that is prohibitive for most charter schools.

Picking a Winner

As the charter school movement continues to grow, the number of options available to perform crucial school operational functions will continue to expand. The purpose of any student information system is to make your job easier, but in this day and age, the amount of data itself, and the requirements around reporting all that data, can be overwhelming. CLC’s Stacy Emory, Director of Curriculum and Resources: “The depth of data we’re talking about nowadays requires the right toolkit to mine it. We’ve used a combination of our SIS’s online resource, customer support and third party support to make sure we were using the SIS the way it was designed to be used.” As you evaluate your options, keep in mind that the one you choose just needs to work best for you and your stakeholders. The type of school you run and the unique ways it will grow in the coming years, the make-up of your staff and their support needs, and the compliance requirements applicable to you will help determine the best fit.

To discuss your specific needs and learn more about the options that would best suit your school, contact Gerald Cockrell at gerald.cockrell@edtec.com.

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