A Shift from Paper to Pixels: Database Technology Helps Union City

To conduct school business in the 21st century effectively, it's important that school boards and systems explore using the latest technology to keep pace. At the Union BoE, we take great pride in providing our schools the best tools needed to get the job done. Emerging demands for data analysis and ability to assure fiscal congruency during tough financial times makes technology an important component of district level educational management.

A shining example of our efforts has been our work to transfer individual school budgets from a central office to the 12 individual schools. This was not just a paper transfer of forms. Over a three-year span, schools were given the challenge to design an operation plan that responded to a school level needs-assessment.

In order to effect positive change in an urban district with a transient student population, we set up school management teams with a diverse representation of faculty, parent and staff. Along with the empowerment of the school management team came the responsibility for central administration to provide the tools to get the job done. Using data base technology to manage the flow of data from input to reports, principals and administrators now get hands-on control of many functions, and the district's budget is completed on time in a state-approved format.

As an added bonus, the same database technology that assures fiscal congruency of the school budget process is also used to improve everything from scheduling field trips to conducting in-class teacher evaluations to tracking the results of professional development within Union City schools.

A Double Challenge

Union City is in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City. The Union City Board of Education serves nearly 10,000 students in 12 schools with 1,500 faculty and non-instructional employees

The city, which measures just 1.4 square miles, faces a double challenge: a large population of students whose first language is not English, and it is also part of the state's "Abbott" system which is an outgrowth of a state Supreme Court ruling that brings additional funding. The Union City school district is under a mandate from the State of New Jersey not only to provide optimal education, but also to track and verify the effectiveness of program spending.

During the past four years, we have met the information management challenge by using a cross-platform Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh workgroup database in this case FileMaker Pro from FileMaker along with the help and expertise of two outside developers.

Our shift from paper to pixels came about in large measures because of the state requirements. Instead of concentrating data at the Board of Education where allocations and decisions could be made, the information had to shift to the schools.

All our schools were given the task of developing school-based budgets. This required a new management style that would create management teams at the school level. The schools developed their own personalities by choosing a model, developing needs assessment and implementing operations to support their plan.

In order to accomplish this task, we had to provide the schools with tools that would assist them make decisions which would best impact a child's education. And this meant taking the data and making it available to administrators in the schools.

One of the most difficult challenges was aligning the school improvement process components in a system that was disjointed. State budget work papers were done in spreadsheets while operational plans were completed in word processing. Employee records were kept on index cards along with rooms full of employee file folders. Managing this huge amount of data from various formats and platforms was our most pressing challenge. It was though the use of a cross platform database structure that all aspect of employee data were moved from paper to electronic storage that could be accessed from anywhere in the district and from home.

The seeds for our success were sown four years ago when we entered into agreement with School Base, a database development consultant. At that time, we had about 30 databases. Today, we are up to more than 90 databases. The customized FileMaker solution we started with not only gave us what we needed at that time, but it also provided the platform for future expansion.

Results Across the Board

With our database in place, the Union City board can track staff and demographic data, salaries, and assignments à enabling the district to enter into a five-year salary contract with employees, a first for the city. Now, through the database, the board can access a five-year wage projection to help anticipate salary costs.

That's just the beginning. Almost all major aspects of running a modern public school system are facilitated with our application. For instance, class field trips, once mired in a flurry of paper forms, can now be proposed and requested online, with Emails going to appropriate Board of Education and transportation department personnel to both approve the trips and schedule the use of school buses.

Furthermore, attendance data from a telephone-entry system, used by the staff, is now funneled into the database for analysis and record keeping purposes. This information can then be retrieved when preparing employee evaluations.

Principals and administrators visit each classroom equipped with a notebook computer and wireless (802.11b) card and complete the evaluations themselves (which are required between two to four times a year for each teacher). The evaluation is filled out on the computer and can later be accessed by administrators as part of a "teacher profile report" that covers every aspect of a teacher's job. Many of these records also include a digital photo of the instructor.

Tracking Progress

By using a database, we have better access to our information, better control, no duplication of data entry, and more accurate information.

Additional benefits abound. By using a database, the school system is better able to relate the professional development activities to each teacher's work assignments, and it can also measure the impact of these programs on student achievements.

In cases where teachers and other staff perform additional duties (after-school classes, lunchtime supervision, etc.), administrative staff can enter records for each work assignment, which are later approved by an electronic principal's signature. The pay records then feed into both the board's payroll and budget systems.

Last year, the Union City Board of Education submitted its budgets to state officials in a timely manner, before the numbers were transferred to state-supplied spreadsheets. Approximately 95 percent of the budget was prepared in the database, including staff data, insurance data, benefits information, etc.

While some may have been skeptical about the power of a workgroup database to deliver a demanding, decentralized school system, the Union City Board of Education now firmly believes in the power of database technology to change the way it does business.

Email: Anthony Dragona