Saving Time and Money in Michigan

Profile: Peter J. Young, Director of Technology, Rockford Public Schools in Michigan
District Stats: 8,000 students, 16 buildings.
Innovation: Efficient Data Integration.
Example: Integrating the district's eFunds database (through which parents place lunch money into their childrens' accounts) with the district's food services database so that parents can know exactly what their children have been eating.

Q.Please describe some of your district's recent initiatives.

A.One big thing we are looking at is a lot more automation to integrate disparate systems. For example, consider the handheld student response systems (such as Qwizdom) which supply instant feedback from our students. These systems allow us to export the data to a csv file but beyond that there is no automated process to take that information and feed it into a database. We want to be able to take that data and develop an application that can automatically incorporate it into our student information system. If it is an assessment, for example, we may want to put that information directly into our data warehouse. I think that is one of those areas where some companies are lacking. My point is we need to take it a step further and have those applications integrate into existing systems so that as an educator I do not need to re-key information into a data warehouse or into a student information system for grades. I should be able to integrate that data at the push.

Q.How are you streamlining systems?

Professional Development
A.We are looking at our existing systems and seeing where they currently require human intervention; we want to automate those processes. We are doing this through Web services. To the end user it is a Web interface, but on the backend we're using SQL databases to tie that information together. A user logs into the application, which takes the credentials from our Novel directory or from our SIS or data warehouse application. Therefore, there is a single sign on process that will allow pertinent information to be accessed. For example, for staff development, we built a "shopping cart" that allows educators to pick and choose the types of courses they would like to have training in. Their available choice of workshops is to a large part dependent on who the teacher is and what grade level he or she teaches. Based upon that, we set a number of different business rules within the application to offer a specific choice of courses to each teacher. We are able to offer that information to staff automatically and instantaneously by pulling information out of our existing database of teacher information, as well as our Novel network.
We as a district could have used the traditional method of creating a brochure, printing it, then having it couriered to our schools, but we estimate we saved 1300 man-hours by automating the process. As well, a number of the components of this application can be applied to the other applications we are in the process of building to help tie our systems together.

One other area we are starting to explore deals with workflow. We look at what we do from an operational standpoint regarding how we handle forms. There are a lot of efficiencies to be gained by using technology to process forms, and once a form is processed electronically, take it to that next step and automate it, for example, integrating it into our financials. It's that kind of seemingly small component, which is actually a big component — that saves several steps and valuable time.

Q.How will parents and community benefit?

A.Our student information system, Skyward, has a family access application that permits parents to look at their children's grades, as well as demographics, scheduling, and the results of assessments. In addition, parents can deposit money for their children into lunch accounts through eFunds. Every student has an account through eFunds; when they purchase lunch that information is recorded. Eventually we want to link that data to our food service database, and be able to tell parents not only how much funding is left in their childrens' accounts, but also what the children have been eating. In general, we want to look at tie-ins, and give more information to the community by bringing disparate systems together.

Overall, what we want is to be data driven, and in real-time. We want access to information that is pertinent, data that people can use. Pulling together disparate systems helps to do this.

Q.How do you fund your efforts?
A.We are gearing up for a technology bond, and as part of that we are piloting some of the new technologies in our classrooms. There have been some recent articles about the intelligent classroom and what it looks like — wireless, mobility within the classroom, projectors, sound systems, document cameras, interactive whiteboards, tablet workstations. Another big component is mobile labs, bringing the lab to the classroom or somewhere else within or outside the building. We're doing that at our elementary level. We are looking for between 10 and 15 million dollars in technology. Our community, school board, and administration have been unbelievably supportive.

Q.How will you implement these intelligent classrooms?

A.Implementation will be K-12 inclusive. We are utilizing Citrix thin client, not just for remote access, but also to access applications internally in lab settings. We feel this will mean lower long term administrative costs to the district, and we can continue to extend the life of our legacy equipment--- as opposed to having traditional workstations that somebody essentially has to touch. Potentially we can take those workstations we have today in a lab setting and move them into classrooms as centers and then use the Citrix technology for that purpose.

Q.What role do vendors play in your district's efforts?

A.I always try to build relationships and partner with vendors, in order to see where technology is heading in the future. We need to think ahead in terms of our bond use — where do we want to be in a number of years? To do so, I build relationships with vendors, go to briefings, and meet with their high level people. This helps me to see the trends in technology. For example, Cisco shapes way we communicate in the world. It is useful to see where they are going, and extrapolate that to education. Our school district has been a pioneer with VoIP, which we've been using for seven years; in addition, we do all of our video distribution over our Ethernet network. These are because we partnered with 3Com to get started. We are looking to take the next leap forward, so we can build upon and leverage our investment. Seven years ago those technologies were bleeding edge; we are looking to build upon and leverage the investment we have already made. We are all about building relationships with people, and with key vendors in the market. If I can get a heads up on where are they are investing, where they see technology developing, those are the types of paths that help me figure out where we need to focus some of our attention.

Jeffrey Branzburg is a contributing editor to School CIO.