CASE STUDY III-8 Purchasing and Implementing a Student Management System at Jefferson County School System
The Jefferson County School System (JCSS) educates about 10,000 students in fourteen elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools. It serves a diverse community consisting of a county seat of 80,000 with a substantial industrial base and a major state university, and the surrounding rural area.
Central High School and Roosevelt High School, located on the eastern edge of town, are spirited athletic rivals whose attendance districts split the county into approximately equal areas, with each district including about 1,450 city and rural patrons. The two middle schools each have about 750 pupils in the seventh and eighth grades and also serve diversified areas. The elementary schools are located throughout the county and range in size from rural schools with about 250 students up to almost 700 students for the largest city school.
History of Administrative Computing in JCSS
Administrative computing at JCSS began in the early 1970s when computing resources at the university were leased to do scheduling and grade reporting and to keep student enrollment data. In 1976 the school corporation purchased a DEC PDP 11/34 computer, and the student management applications were converted from the university computer. During the next few years, financial applications were added and more student management applications were developed. Over the years there have been many changes to the JCSS technical architecture. They now have four Dell servers operating under UNIX, and PCs in all JCSS locations are connected to the system via a high-speed TCP/IP network.
All JCSS applications, both financial and student management, were custom developed by the longtime director of data processing, David Meyer, and the two programmers on his staff. The users of these systems were satisfied with them, and when they wanted changes and improvements, Meyer and his programmers would make them. There was no end-user capability—if anyone needed a special report, a program to produce it was written by one of the programmers.
Three years ago the long-time JCSS superintendent of schools retired, and Dr. Harvey Greene was hired as his replacement. Dr. Greene had been the superintendent of a smaller school system and had attended a conference where a speaker convinced him that software had become a commodity and that it no longer made sense for a school system to develop and maintain its own software.
After a few months to get his feet on the ground, Dr. Greene established a small task force of administrators to evaluate the JCSS data processing systems and to recommend directions for the future. Not surprisingly, this task force recommended that:
• The JCSS systems should be replaced with purchased software packages with maintenance agreements.
• The new systems should utilize an integrated database and report-generation software so that people could share data from various applications.
• Because JCSS would no longer be doing custom development, the programming staff of the data processing department could be eliminated.
David Meyer was not included on the task force, and Director of Data Processing Meyer was quite upset with the decision to gut his staff without even consulting him. When these recommendations were accepted by Dr. Greene and the school board, he chose to resign from his position as DP Director. He was replaced by Carol Andrews, who had 13 years of experience as an applications programmer, systems programmer, and systems analyst with a nearby federal government installation.
Copyright © 2007 by E. W. Martin. This is a revised version of a case with the same name © 1997. It is intended for class discussion, rather than to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of a management situation.
Purchasing the New System
After spending several months getting acclimated to the JCSS and her new job, Andrews set about the task of selecting a vendor to provide the hardware and software to replace the current administrative computing applications at JCSS. In late November a computer selection committee was appointed to evaluate available systems and recommend a vendor to the JCSS School Board. This 14-member committee included representatives of most of the major users of the system—assistant principals who did scheduling and were responsible for student records, deans who were responsible for attendance and student discipline, counselors, teachers, the personnel director, and the chief accountant. It also included representatives of the different levels of schools in the system and from each of the larger school locations.
EXHIBIT 1 Jefferson County School System Request for Proposal
By late March Andrews and the committee had prepared a 71-page request for proposal (RFP) that was sent to 23 possible vendors, asking that proposals be submitted by May 4. The RFP stated that “The proposals will be evaluated on functional requirements, support services, and a 5-year life cycle cost.” The table of contents of the RFP is included as Exhibit 1. Appendices A through E listed in the contents were in the form of fill-in-the-blank questionnaires that defined the information that JCSS desired from the vendors.
The RFP was sent to vendors that would contract to accept responsibility for all the software and support and training services required to install and maintain the new system. Appendix C of the RFP described the JCSS hardware and communications architecture and specified that any required changes to the existing environment must be described and the associated costs presented. The desired requirements for the application software were described in Appendix D in the form of characteristics that could be checked off as included or not.
Although members of the selection committee made suggestions, Andrews determined most of the requirements for the application systems by examining what the existing systems did and talking with people throughout the JCSS. The application specifications for the attendance accounting and student scheduling systems from Appendix D are included as Exhibit 2.
EXHIBIT 2 Application Specifications, Appendix D
Selection of the Vendor
Seven proposals were submitted in response to the RFP. Andrews was able to winnow them down easily to three serious contenders that were evaluated in detail. Each of the three finalists was invited to demonstrate its system to the selection committee. The vendors were not told in detail what to show, but they were asked to demonstrate the operation of several of the major systems. The three vendors brought in their own computers for the demonstration, and all of the demonstrations were quite satisfactory to the committee.
The committee originally intended to visit a school that used each vendor’s system, but because of time and money constraints they were only able to visit two sites—one Data Systems, Inc., installation and one Scholastic Systems Corporation installation. Andrews and Dr. Paul Faris, Assistant Principal at Roosevelt High, spent one day at each of these locations observing their systems in action and talking with users. In addition, members of the committee made telephone calls to their counterparts at other schools that used each vendor’s systems without unearthing any major problems or concerns. Everyone seemed quite positive about all three vendors and their products.
The committee had a difficult time deciding between the three finalists. Each of the vendors proposed software packages in all the areas that JCSS had asked for, but none of these systems did exactly what they wanted in exactly the way the current systems did things. The committee finally chose Data Systems, Inc., (DSI) because the members felt they could work well with the DSI people, and they felt that the DSI proposal was best on balance, as indicated in Exhibit 3, which they presented to the JCSS School Board. This table rates six factors on a scale from 1 to 5, with a total rating for each of the finalist vendors at the bottom. DSI was rated highest in “Application Software” because its system was a Web-based system, and the committee felt that this was the technology of the future. DSI had recently converted the functionality of its legacy systems to the Web-based architecture and had only installed it at three school systems, so the committee was aware that it might have more bugs than if the system had been in use for several years. The “cost of ownership” includes the purchase price of the software, installation, training, and five years of maintenance and support. The “bid exceptions” rating refers to how well the proposed software fits the JCSS specifications and thus a high rating indicates that little modification of the software would be needed.
EXHIBIT 3 Evaluation of Bids
The JCSS School Board awarded the contract to DSI in June. It included the following systems: financial, payroll/personnel, fixed assets, warehouse inventory, registration, scheduling, grades/transcripts, attendance, book bills, office assistant, electronic mail, and special education. These systems utilize a standard relational database management system that includes a query language that generates ad hoc reports.
DSI agreed to make specific changes in the software packages where the committee had indicated that the packages did not meet the JCSS specifications. The contract also provided that DSI would devote up to 100 hours of programming time to making other modifications (not yet specified) in its software. Any additional changes requested by JCSS would be billed at $100 per programmer hour. JCSS also purchased DSI’s standard software maintenance contract.
Implementation of the Systems
With the help of DSI people, the software for the new systems was loaded on the JCSS servers in December. Although they had some problems with the financial systems, they successfully converted most of them from the old systems to the new DSI systems. However, they had major problems in installing and using the student management systems.
Andrews planned to follow the cycle of the academic year when implementing the student systems. First, they would transfer all the student demographic information from the present system to the new system’s database. Then they would complete the students’ fall class schedules by the end of the spring semester, as they had been doing with the old system, so that the students’ schedules would be on the new system and ready to go in the fall. During the summer they would pick up the attendance accounting on the new system so it would be ready for the fall. Then they would implement grade reporting so it would be ready for use at the end of the first six-week grading period in the fall. Finally, they would convert the student transcript information from the old system so that fall semester grades could be transferred to the transcripts at the end of the semester.
They successfully transferred the student demographic information from the old system to the new in February. Then they started to work on student scheduling. Things did not go well. The training provided by DSI for the scheduling officers was a disaster. Then, after entering the student class requests and the available faculty data, they started the first scheduling run. After it had run all day without completing the schedules, they decided that there was something definitely wrong. Andrews never completely resolved this problem with DSI’s experts. DSI claimed that it was caused by the way the scheduling officer set up the scheduling system—the various parameters that the system uses. Andrews was still convinced that there was some sort of bug in the scheduling program.
DSI did make some minor modifications to the program, and they sent some people out to consult with Andrews and her staff on how to set up the schedule, but they were unable to get the schedules done by the end of the spring semester as planned. This caused severe problems because the assistant principals in charge of scheduling were not on the payroll during the summer. Fortunately, Paul Faris, the scheduling officer at Roosevelt, was working summer school, and with his assistance they were just able to get all the schedules done two weeks before school started.
Preparation for the fall was also hindered by the fact that neither the school secretaries, who entered much of the data for the attendance module, nor the counselors, who had to work with the scheduling of new students in the system and changes to schedules of continuing students, were on the payroll during the summer. The administration would not spend the money to pay these people to come in during the summer for training on the system, so all training was delayed until the week before school started, when everyone reported back to work. The training was rushed, and again DSI did a poor job with it.
When school started in the fall, the system was a total disaster. The people who were working with the system did not understand it or know what they were doing with it. When the counselors tried to schedule a new student into his classes, the system might take 20 minutes to produce his new schedule. Needless to say, there were long lines of students waiting in the halls, and the students, their parents, the counselors, teachers, and administrators were upset and terribly frustrated.
Also, the attendance officers did not know what they were doing and could not make the system work for the first few weeks of the semester. Things were so bad that at the end of the first grading period Andrews decided that, although the grade reporting system was working correctly, it was not feasible to have the teachers enter their grades directly into the system as had been planned. Instead, she hired several outside clerical people to enter the grades from forms the teachers filled out. After some well-executed training, the teachers successfully entered their grades at the end of the semester.
By the end of the fall semester most of those working with the student systems had learned enough to make them work adequately, and a few of them were beginning to recognize that the new systems had some significant advantages over the old ones. They did get the second semester underway without major problems, and in early February of the next year they were getting ready to bring up the transcript system and start the scheduling process for the fall.
Perspectives of the Participants
Given everything that had transpired in acquiring and implementing the new system to this stage, it is not surprising that there were many different opinions on the problems that were encountered, whether or not the new system was satisfactory, and what the future would hold. The following presents the perspectives of a number of those who had been involved with the new system.
Dr. Harold Whitney, Assistant Principal, Central High School
Dr. Whitney asserts that the previous system was an excellent system that really did the job for them.
It was fast, efficient, and effective. And when we needed something, rather than having to call DSI in Virginia to get it done, our own people would do it for us in a matter of 2 or 3 days. However, the study committee (which probably didn’t have enough good school people on it) decided on the new system, and we were told that we would start with the new scheduling software package early in the year.
The first acquaintance that Whitney had with the new system was in early February when DSI sent someone in to train four or five of the scheduling people on how to use the new system to construct a master schedule. Whitney recalls:
Over a 3-day period we took 50 students and tried to construct a master schedule. And at the end of the 3 days, we still hadn’t been able to do it. It was apparent that the lady they sent out to train us, while she may have known the software, had no idea of what we wanted in a master schedule, and had never experienced the master schedule-building process in a large high school.
The master schedule is the class schedule of all of the courses that we offer—when and where they will be taught, and by whom. In the past, I would take the course requests from our students and summarize them to determine the demand for each course, and then I would develop a master schedule that assigned our available teachers to the courses that they could best teach while meeting the student demand as well as possible. I had to take into account the fact that, among all the teachers who are certified to teach mathematics, some are more effective teaching algebra and geometry than they are in calculus, and similarly for other subject areas. Also, we have 15 or so teachers who are part-time in our school and therefore can only teach here during the morning (or the afternoon). Furthermore, we need to lock our 2-semester courses so that a student will have the same teacher for both semesters.
With the new system we were supposed to input our teachers and their certifications and the student requests for courses, and the DSI software would generate the ideal master schedule to satisfy that demand. But we had to place quite a number of restrictions on what and when the teachers could teach and into what sections a student could be scheduled. When we tried to run the software, it just ran and ran, but it never produced a satisfactory schedule.
DSI sent one of its top executives out to talk with Whitney about these problems. The executive told Whitney that “the reason that you’re unhappy is that you’re placing too many restrictions on the schedule.” Whitney replied, “All well and good. But are you telling me that your software package should dictate our curriculum? That it should dictate who teaches calculus, who teaches general math, who teaches advanced and who teaches beginning grammar? That’s hardly sound educationally!”
Whitney ended up doing the schedule by hand, as he had done before, and the students were scheduled by the end of the spring semester. Some of the other schools continued to try to use the full system, and they had a hard time getting the schedules out by the start of school.
Whitney had a very bad impression of the system until the end of the year when he began to believe things were improving somewhat. The DSI people were beginning to listen to him, and he was more receptive: “I’ve always been able to see that somewhere down the road the new system will have capabilities that improve on our old system.”
Dr. Paul Faris, Assistant Principal, Roosevelt High School
Dr. Faris, an active member of the computer study committee that chose the new system, is responsible for class scheduling at Roosevelt High. Unlike Harold Whitney at Central High, he used the system as it was intended to be used both to develop the master schedule and to schedule the students into their classes. He had a struggle with the system at first and had not completed the master schedule by the end of spring. However, he was on the payroll during the summer and was able to complete the master schedule a few weeks before the beginning of school in the fall. In doing so he learned a great deal about how the scheduling system worked.
The way your master schedule is set up and the search patterns you establish determine how the system performs. The individual principals have control over many aspects of the process, and there is a lot of leeway—whether you set up for one semester or two, whether you strictly enforce class sizes, whether or not you have alternatives to search for with specific courses, and so on. We set it up for double semester, which is the hard one, but I had generous limits on my class size and we had limited search for alternatives, which kicked the difficult ones out of the system to handle on a manual basis. And I limited certain courses to seniors, or sophomores, et cetera, and that restricted the search pattern somewhat.
Dr. Faris knew that the beginning of the fall semester would be crunch time, when lots of work would have to be done with the new system in a limited amount of time. So he prepared his people for the transition ahead of time. His secretary was skilled on the old system. Early in the spring Faris told her: “We are going to change over our entire system in 4 months. And week by week I want you to tell me what files have to be changed over, and you and I are going to do it.” Again, it was a matter of making sure things were done in a nonpressure situation where they could learn what they had to know.
Dr. Faris and his counselors still had many problems during the first few weeks of school in the fall, but nothing that they could not cope with. Things are going well in his area now. When they recently started the second semester it was a crunch time again, but the counselors got along fine with schedule changes and they completed the new schedules faster than they had with the old system. Dr. Faris believes that the new system is a substantial improvement over the old one.
I can follow through and find the kids’ attendance, current program, grades, past history and transcripts, and probably have everything I need in 2 or 3 minutes. Before the new system I could barely walk to the filing cabinet and find his folder in that time. And then I’d still have to go to the counseling office and get the current schedule, and then to the attendance office and get the attendance record.
I’m really pleased with the new file structures. And Carol’s programmer is starting to add back some of the custom things that we had in the old system. I’m looking forward to being trained on the report generator so that I can produce my own special reports without getting a programmer involved.
Dr. Ruth Gosser, Assistant Principal, Central High School
Dr. Gosser is the attendance and disciplinary officer at Central High and was a member of the computer selection committee. Ruth recalls:
We looked at about four different companies. Several had very good packages, although I will admit that by the time you sit through four or five different presentations, they all tend to run into one another.
My participation in specifying the requirements and evaluating the proposed systems was minimal. It was a big committee, and I was busy with other things, so I didn’t even read the materials very carefully. I disliked spending the time that I did, and I was really turned off by the details, especially the technical details. I remember thinking: Ugh! I’m sick of this. Just go ahead and buy something!
She and her people had only two days of training on the system before the start of school, and Gosser thought the training provided was pretty useless. “They weren’t very well-organized, and they spent too much time on the technical aspects of the system. I just wanted to know how to use the system, but they tried to give me a lot more and it really confused me and made me angry.”
When school started in the fall, it was a disaster. Ruth remembers it vividly:
It was awful! Awful! I didn’t get home till after 6:30 for weeks. Just getting the information in and out was a nightmare. We had a terrible time trying to change the unexcused to excused, and doing all the little things that go with that. It was so bad that we seriously considered abandoning the system and trying to do it by hand. It was horrible!
But we’ve just gone through second-semester class changes, and I haven’t heard anyone weeping and wailing about what a crummy system this is. We’re beginning to recognize that we’ve got the new system, and we’re going to have it for a long time. They’re not going to junk a system that we have paid all that money for, so we’d better work to make the very best out of it that we can. And I can see that there are some really good things about the new system that the old system didn’t have, and never could have.
Looking back, I don’t think that the computer selection committee did a very good job. If I had known then what I know now I’d have put a lot more effort into it than I did. Since most of us didn’t put in the effort to get down to the details of exactly what we needed, Carol pretty much had to do it herself. Unfortunately, we only gave her enough information to get her off our backs. Like “I need something that will chart attendance for me.” That wasn’t much help. Every system we considered would chart attendance, so we had no basis for deciding which system would have been best for us.
Dr. Helen Davis, Assistant Principal, Roosevelt High
Dr. Davis is the attendance and disciplinary officer at Roosevelt High School. She was not a member of the computer selection committee, and she does not think it did a very good job.
The committee looked at a lot of different kinds of things, but they didn’t communicate. Even though we all were supposed to have representatives on the committee, we didn’t know what they were doing, nor did we have the opportunity to discuss any of the systems that they were looking at and whether those systems would help us or satisfy our needs.
When the new system was put in last fall a lot of us had no training, no information, and didn’t know what was going on. My secretary had a day and a half training in August, but I had no training at all. Some training was offered to me in August, but I had already made arrangements to be out of town, and no flexibility was provided as to when the training would be available. Furthermore, there are no user-friendly manuals for the system—the manual they gave me is written in computerese. So I’ve had to learn the system by bitter experience, and I still don’t know what it offers me. I could go through a hundred menus and not find what I want because I don’t know what they are for.
Last fall when school opened my blood pressure probably went to about 300 every day! We couldn’t do attendance—it wouldn’t work. We couldn’t print an absence list for the teachers. We couldn’t put out an unexcused list. We couldn’t get an excessive absence report, so it was mid-semester before I could start sending letters to parents whose kids weren’t attending regularly. That really impedes the work of trying to keep kids in school.
The thing that frustrated Helen the most was that she resented being controlled by the software system.
The system is dictating what we can do with kids and their records. It needs to be the opposite way. We ought to be driving that machine to service what we need to do as easily as possible. But the machine is driving us, and I’m really displeased with that.
We’re stuck with DSI and their software because we’ve got so much money invested in it. In time Carol will be able to make this system as compatible with our needs as it can be, but it will never be as suitable as it should be. And it will take a long, long time before we get all the things that we need.
Catherine Smith, Counselor, Central High School
Catherine Smith has been a counselor at Central High School for 20 years, but she had no experience with the computer before the training session that was held the Thursday and Friday before school started. According to Catherine:
The first day of school was just unbelievable! It took 2 hours to schedule one new student. Everyone was running up and down the halls asking each other questions. No one knew what was going on.
The first 2 days I had absolutely no control over that computer! It would bleep, and you didn’t know why. But by Wednesday morning I began to get control. I knew that if I pushed this button, this would happen. And I knew how to make it do some of the things I wanted it to do.
Now that I’ve worked with it for a semester, I’m happy with it. The system contains a tremendous amount of information that I need to help the students. The thing I like most about the system is that when I want to put a kid in a class and it’s full, I can find out instantly how many kids are in each section, and I can usually find a place for the kid. I can even override it if the section is closed. Despite the fact that we almost died during that first week, now that I have control over it I think it’s tremendous!
Murphey Ford, English Teacher, Roosevelt High School
Murphey has taught English at Roosevelt for 12 years, and he has had no experience with a computer beyond entering his grades into the old system.
This new computer has been a disaster from the word go. Last fall they didn’t produce a class schedule until 2 weeks before classes were to start, so I had no time to prepare to teach a class I hadn’t taught for 5 years! And I wasn’t even asked if I would be willing to teach it—the computer just assigned me to it.
Then they relaxed the limits on class size. We ended up having some classes with 30 students and others with 40. That’s not fair to either the students or the teachers. And it was a zoo around here at the beginning of the fall. It was 3 weeks before they got all the new students into their classes and things settled down a little.
In this community we have very high expectations for the education system, but we never have enough money to provide the special programs we want, or get adequate supplies, or pay decent salaries. It really burns me up that we spent so much on this new system that doesn’t work anything like as well as the old one.
Carol Andrews, Director of Data Processing
The 15 months since the new software arrived have been very difficult and stressful for Carol:
I often wonder what it was that caused things to have gotten so difficult and to have raised so much negative reaction to the new system. One explanation is that we have a history of custom-developed systems, so anything that users wanted got done exactly the way they wanted it. Now we have a set of generic software that is meant to serve many school systems and it doesn’t do exactly what they want in exactly the way they want it.
It was hard to get effective participation from the members of the computer selection committee. Coming from the government our RFP wasn’t very big to me, but when I passed it around to the committee they couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t even get the people to really read the RFP, let alone the responses. Actually, it should have been even more detailed. It was the lack of detail that really caused us most of our problems, because it has been the details that have determined whether or not the systems were suitable to our people.
We should have paid a lot more attention to training. DSI hasn’t had much experience with training, and they just didn’t do a good job with it. They left me, a new user, with too much responsibility for setting up the training and making sure that everything in the system was ready for it. And they didn’t provide me with the training that I needed.
Money is a big constraint to the JCSS. I needed a lot more programming help in-house, and someone from DSI—a week here and a week there—to fill in for our lack of knowledge in being able to support our users.
Looking back at it, 15 months seems like an extremely long time to implement a new system. But it might have been better to take even more time to do it. Maybe we should have piloted the system at one school for a year and worked the bugs out of it before installing it systemwide.
Where do we go from here? How do we handle the negative reaction that has been generated from all the stumbles and falls? How do we get things turned around to take advantage of some of the things that are really positive for the school system now that we have access to all this information? I’m beginning to see little pockets here and there where people are starting to use the capabilities of the new system and are developing positive attitudes. I hope that we’re getting over the hump!
If we had it to do over again, would we make the decision to go with DSI? That’s a question I ask myself every day! Could we have done better? Would we have had fewer problems? I don’t know.
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