How to Buy a Student Information System

Imagine you are planning and implementing a new student information system (SIS) for your school district. Now imagine you're the 17th largest school system in the country, responsible for 130,000 students and 200 schools and facilities. You have an annual budget of $1.4 billion, but a per-student cost of $8612, significantly lower than any other district in your area. You are currently using an antiquated, if functional, 25-year-old HP-3000–based green-screen system for student data, which is getting increasingly difficult to support and maintain, not to mention lacking the flexible reporting capabilities necessary to meet state and federal requirements.

This scenario is exactly that faced by Maryland’s Prince George's County Public Schools. Prince George’s County CIO Wesley Watts was charged with defining technical requirements, selecting a vendor, and implementing an SIS that meets the district’s current and anticipated future needs. This is his story.

Choosing a Vendor

Watts approached vendor selection systematically. "We were one of the first K–12 districts to make use of Oracle Financials as a central part of our infrastructure so we had some recent experience, good and bad, with large-scale IT implementations,” he says. Watts assigned 30 people to review the proposed requirements. “We knew we wanted a Web-based system, and that it has to work with Oracle as a backend database,” says Watts, who also cited reporting, school-to-parent communication, scheduling, attendance, and enrollment as key priorities. The district’s overarching goal: accessing real-time, accurate data across the board.

Having determined its needs, the project team’s real fun began. The team reviewed 10 bids and narrowed the pool to six vendors, who were invited to give a full-day presentation. In the morning, vendors provided an overview of their proposed solutions followed by a Q&A period. The afternoon was spent drilling down into technical details: architecture, security, backup, and business continuity plans. “Managing change is a big deal, and with a new system, change can already be upsetting, so we absolutely were determined [that the new system] meet or beat current service expectations,” says Watts.

After reviewing more than 300 requirements for each vendor, three vendors were selected for a final round. Each company gave a presentation at the central administration office detailing how it would integrate a solution with special education, food services, transportation and other systems. Next, PG County staff members conducted on-site visits to other locations that had implemented each solution. Still further criteria considered were overall cost, as well as support and training arrangements.

The final result of the arduous but thorough evaluation process was the selection of the new J2EE-based SchoolMAX solution from Maximus. Maximus is in the process of completing an enormous SIS implementation for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Implementation Insight

Lessons learned in the process were legion. "[Make sure to do] site visits, look at clients who already have the product, and if possible, form a partnership with districts who have already implemented the product you select so you can aid each other along the way,” says Watts. “And always have your lawyers delve into the contract.”

Allocating resources to train staff on the system is also imperative. “We learned a hard lesson from our Oracle Financials implementation that you can't have the same staff double up on the old and new systems; you will need additional staff for the transition, to create new reports, and to provide additional help desk support,” says Watts.

Another key for Prince George County was involving all of the district’s divisions, including accountability, curriculum and instruction, principals, nurses, transportation, food service, and special education. “[After SchoolMAX was selected,] we did business process reviews and discovered that a lot of these different groups use the system for vastly different things. So we would show them each the module out of the box and write up gap analyses between the product and specific functional needs, making sure decisions about how the module would go live involved staff up front—including teachers and principals—[and] showing them, for instance, how attendance will be taken in classroom, and addressing any concerns immediately.” Watts’ team also created focus groups comprising the district’s secretarial and attendance staff. “[They] can point out that a routine task takes three minutes to do for each person, which is unacceptable."

The new SIS’s attendance and grade reporting capabilities are scheduled to go live this year; Prince George County is currently in the midst of data conversion and interface building. Meanwhile, the district plans to run the old mini-based system and SchoolMAX in parallel until it's clear that the implementation is a success.

Richard Hoffman is contributing editor of School CIO.