Janesville schools look to new world of data

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Frank Schultz
Thursday, September 26, 2013

JANESVILLE—An irritated parent called The Gazette earlier this month after enrolling his children in school. After entering his information on a school computer, he said, he was asked to fill out paper forms with much of the same information.

That's how it was this year, but that's not how it will be next year with a new student data system in place, said Robert Smiley, the Janesville School District's chief information officer.

Smiley said staff members will need to learn the new software, but the result should save time and effort and put relevant data at teachers' and administrators' fingertips.

The new system will display student data in better ways that help school officials make decisions about instruction, grades and ways to improve student achievement, Smiley said.

The district's outdated student data systems will be replaced with software called Infinite Campus. Annual costs will actually drop about 20 percent, or $33,000, Smiley said.

Upfront costs—mostly staff training and replacing outdated food-service cashier terminals—should be paid off with the annual savings in just over four years, Smiley said. 

The district's old data-storage systems, Skyward and Oaisys, are outdated and don't “talk” to each other, Smiley said. Other records are kept on freestanding Microsoft Excel spreadsheets or on paper.

“Our enrollment process is almost all paper, requiring a family with two or three children more than an hour to complete all the paperwork,” Smiley wrote in a recent memo to the superintendent.

Data for special education students' individual education plans is almost all on paper, Smiley wrote, as are disciplinary referrals.

“There are many more examples of limits, inefficiencies, and double/triple data entry with these archaic systems,” Smiley wrote.

New software can be problematic, but Smiley is confident about Infinite Campus. He has worked with it before. He oversaw transitions to Infinite Campus in Waunakee and Stoughton schools, and his daughter used it as a student in the Madison School District.

“There is going to be a transition, but there's nothing about it that doesn't function great,” Smiley said.

The new system offers these advantages:

-- Parents and students will be able to access the student's data, including absences, homework and test scores. One tool will help parents and students keep track of a high school student's progress toward on-time graduation.

-- Teachers will be able to access all of a student's information from within the gradebook, rather than seeking it on multiple systems. Eventually, a teacher will be able to easily call up years of data for a student's history of behavior, attendance and academic achievement.

-- The information will be accessible on tablets such as iPads, smart phones and other computing devices, either Mac or PC based.

-- Data will reflect modern families. The old system showed just a primary and secondary parent, Smiley said. Infinite Campus allows for more complicated families, which can involve grandparents, in-laws and step-parents who have parenting roles.

-- The system will be “cloud-based,” allowing Infinite Campus to “back up” the district's data—making a copy every few minutes. In the case of a fire, for example, data would not be lost and could be accessed almost immediately afterward. That's what happened to schools that were using Infinite Campus in during Hurricane Katrina, Smiley said.

-- An automated telephone alert system that will replace the current Alert Now system will be able to get messages out the 20,000-plus parents in a much shorter time.

The new student data system, scheduled to go live July 1, is not a universal data system. The district's financial and human resource information will remain on separate systems and servers, Smiley said.

Smiley acknowledged that converting to the new system will be challenging, but he is excited about the potential.

“I really want people to understand that we are on the move, that Janesville is using technology that is critical to our lives,” he said. “We are not sitting still.”

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