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Back Office Makeovers

See how three districts revamped their infrastructures to streamline school operations and concentrate on education

September 2007
Nick Gledich, chief operating officer at OCPS, stands before his new streamlined computer system
Nick Gledich, chief operating officer at OCPS, stands before his new streamlined computer system

Not too long ago, the back office of the typical elementary, middle, or high school was straightforward. Behind a long counter there were rows and rows of file cabinets containing folders stuffed with student records, along with an army of secretaries, aides, and clerks responsible for protecting, updating, and archiving this cache of information. Containing everything from test scores and class grades to disciplinary actions and honors, the school record seemed destined to stay on paper.

Fast-forward to the present, when most of the file cabinets have been replaced by a bank of computer screens connected to a database. The goal of tracking students through their education remains the same, but the information is stored digitally because, in addition to taking up less space, it can now be retrieved immediately. Computerizing records is only the first step of a long journey. With a dose of 21st-century thinking and technology, district administrators and superintendents are coming to grips with the need to rationalize how their institutions are run and how records are kept.

Here’s how three districts—large and small—met these challenges and streamlined their administrations by giving their back offices a makeover.

LARGE DISTRICT
District: Orange County Public Schools, Orlando, Florida
Number of Schools: 181
Number of Students: 177,000

Project Goal: To better absorb several thousand new students every academic year and reorganize the district’s operations with business intelligence software.

As the nation’s 12th-largest school district, Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) looms large, with a $1.4 billion budget and more students than the entire population of Providence, Rhode Island. No statistic is more pressing than the 7,500 new students who show up at one of the district’s schools in the Orlando, Florida, area to register for the fall term. By treating the school’s administration as the equivalent of a large business and streamlining its operations, OCPS was able to handle the demand and let teachers concentrate on teaching.

In late 2003, under the code name Project Passport, OCPS started to revamp its way of doing just about every major activity. It invested $10.2 million to upgrade to mySAP Business Suite, which has the power to control the district’s entire operation. This type of enterprise resource planning (ERP) software has traditionally been used to oversee and coordinate the global operations of large companies such as Mercedes-Benz and Colgate-Palmolive. The approach involves controlling just about everything the district does—from hiring to procurement to keeping the books—with sophisticated software, but pays the dividend of making its activities more efficient.

“We were happy with the SAP software we had,” recalls Nick Gledich, chief operating officer at OCPS. “We wanted it to do more and use the software to its fullest extent.” The upgrade included new SAP software, training, transferring the district’s data from the old system to the new one, as well as consulting services to tie it all together.As is the case with any software that is this complex and far reaching, there were bumps in the road.

The key to success, according to Gledich, was that each glitch was identified, examined, and fixed. “You don’t hide from problems,” he advises. “We were able to turn our start-up problems into opportunities.” Project Passport’s results are nothing short of amazing. The district not only cut the time it took to process its payroll from 12 hours to three hours, but it also saved 100,000 man-hours every year. The old system also required a weeklong shutdown at the end of every school year to archive the accumulated data and get the system ready for a new school year. Now, that work can be done in a single afternoon.

With the district needing 2,400 new employees every year—nearly 10 percent of its personnel—recruiting and hiring teachers and staff is a top priority. The mySAP package includes an e-recruiting module that updates the entire process for 21st-century human resources. “Most of our hiring was done by paper,” recalls Charles Thompson, the district’s chief information officer. “It’s now all online and much more efficient.”

It doesn’t stop there, because mySAP has created a solid foundation for OCPS to continue growing and evolving. The package features the appropriately named Constant Innovation, which provides a forum for teachers and staff to bring up things that they would like to see done differently. “This is just the beginning,” says Gledich. “When you have a software system that’s this easy to use, schools can be more efficient and teachers can devote more time to instruction. It’s a win-win.”

MEDIUM DISTRICT:

District: Portage Township School District, Portage, Indiana
Number of Schools: 11
Number of Students: 8,000

Project Goal: Replace paper student files with a centralized, digital document storage system that allows the instant and secure retrieval of any student record.

With thousands of student files in every spare nook and cranny of its facilities, the Portage Township School District, in northern Indiana, was drowning in paper. “There were files in closets, in basements, and piled up in hallways,” explains Lynn Duhamell, director of instructional media services at the district. “We had boxes stored wherever there was room, but we were running out of room.” Unfortunately, Indiana law requires that schools keep student records forever, so the options seemed clear: Pay to securely store older files off-site or figure a way out of Portage’s paper chase.

Duhamell decided to keep the content but get rid of the paper by setting up a scan-and-shred operation. At an initial cost of $30,000, in spring 2003, Information and Records Associates of nearby South Bend, Indiana, created an in-house scanning facility with three high-speed Fujitsu document scanners along with three existing PCs. Each summer since 2003, three Portage employees go through the district’s backlogged documents, turning paper into digital images. Once the documents are scanned, the technician uses Docuware’s integrated document management software to attach keywords, such as name, address, and social security number, to speed the document’s retrieval. After checking that everything is included in the digital file, the original documents are destroyed in an industrial shredder and the paper is recycled. One snag became apparent as soon as they started. Some older files had notes and records on the folders themselves, which wouldn’t fit into the scanner’s feeder. The solution was to manually scan the folders. Then, as the program picked up speed, Portage’s server began to run out of space. Once the hardware was replaced, the records started flowing again. “To save space, we have the option in Docuware to put some of the material on DVDs,” says Duhamell. “We may do that, but at this point it’s too early to tell.”

After five summers of scanning, the Portage District has digitized and destroyed several million student records, but that’s just the start. It will take another five summers to catch up with all the student files the district accumulated. After finishing the elementary schools’ paperwork, Duhamell’s crew will start digitizing the records from Portage Township High School, which date back to the 1890s. “It’s just a guess, but we think when we’re done we’ll have scanned between 40 million and 50 million pages,” says Duhamell.

The liberated space adds up quickly because each file is at least a half-inch thick. “The school principals absolutely love it,” says Duhamell. “That’s space they can now use for students and teaching.” On top of making room available for education, the scanning project has made the files more accessible. If a student who left the district returns, getting her file is a snap. Instead of sending someone on an Odyssean task to find the box that contains the student’s file, it’s now as easy as typing the student’s name into the district’s intranet.

When all the district’s records are digitized, the district may put its older files online for former students and families to view. It will likely start with a compilation of the high school’s yearbooks, but could extend to allowing former students and their families to read their files. “What did my dad look like as a second grader?” quips Duhamell. “How did he do in fourth grade spelling, or what was that trip to the principal’s office all about? Having it searchable and online would be really helpful.”

SMALL DISTRICT

District: Brewer School District, Brewer, Maine
Number of Schools: 5
Number of Students: 1,800

Project Goal: Replace individual school administrative systems with a single, centralized setup so that student data are available immediately, can be automatically moved as students graduate, and can be quickly put into reports using just about any parameter.

Call it the summer sneaker net, but when students at each of the Brewer School District’s three elementary schools graduated, their school records had to be copied to disk and hand delivered to the district’s middle school before the fall term. Without this information the kids would not be able to register for their fall classes. Although the district, which is located in the suburbs of Bangor, Maine, had already computerized the operations of its five schools, the schools were separate entities, or silos of information, with no easy way to move data to where they needed to be.

Beginning in 2003, the Brewer District began consolidating the five schools’ systems into a cohesive structure where information would flow freely. The first step was to replace each school’s administrative computer and Computer Resources’ MMS 2000 software with a centralized server that runs the company’s MMS Generations software. “They made the upgrade easy for us,” recalls Mark Jenkins, technology technician at the district. MMS Generations is a one-stop shop for everything to do with running an up-to-date school. The package includes modules for student information, attendance, scheduling, testing, and even automating cafeteria operations. It compiles information on each student in a digital file as he or she progresses through the grades.

Luckily, Brewer’s existing infrastructure was more than enough to host the new system. It takes about a gigabyte of storage to hold the district’s student data, which are safely stored on a RAID-5 hard drive array. If one hard drive fails, the other drives can rebuild the lost data, making the setup close to fail-safe. The district has, however, outgrown its four-year-old server, so it recently purchased new equipment.

Although the server and data are stashed at the Capri Street Elementary School, which also houses the district superintendent’s office, student data can be viewed any time, day or night. MMS Generations allows remote access from any connected computer via Microsoft’s Terminal Services software. “Guidance counselors get to the data from home, and I do a lot of system maintenance from home,” says Jenkins. “It’s a really efficient way to do things.”Computer Resources has been responsive to Brewer’s needs, with updates that address specific problems. One area of concern that remains is that the high school nurse would like to add a flag for students with allergies. Right now, this portion of the records is confidential.

A bonus is that administrators can create reports that cover just about anything the district does. Previously, if the superintendent wanted to see a list of all children reading below grade level, someone would have had to go from school to school compiling the data. “Before MMS Generations, we could only put together reports on data from each school,” explains Jenkins. “With our centralized data, we can now create a report on any group of students from K to 12. It’s a big step forward for us.”

Overall, the MMS Generations installation has been well received at Brewer’s schools. In addition to not needing dedicated hardware at each school, getting student records together for a new class takes a few seconds. “Across the board,” adds Jenkins, “the computer systems have saved a lot of time and money for us.” @

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