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Schools want better, faster information
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Effingham County school board members learned there’s a need for a new student information system.

The system currently uses Schools Administrative Student Information (SASI), which was implemented systemwide in January 2003. Information systems coordinator Noralee Deason told the board SASI is used for all the “day to day functions in the schools” including enrollment, state reporting, scheduling, grade reporting, attendance and other functions.

But there are areas where school personnel are not happy with the program.

“It’s not a Web-based application—there isn’t 24/7 access,” Deason said. “Administrators are beginning to want more access.”

Deason said she can go to her office on a Saturday and catch up on work, but principals cannot because there is always someone in the school. She said some technology employees can access the system from home.

She said when the sugar refinery explosion happened, she had access to check which schools have students affected by the event.

“Our principals couldn’t do that,” Deason said.

She said it is a distributed application. There is a separate software instillation at each individual school site. District integration was added that allows some of the records to be transferred to the system on a nightly basis.

“That is not a very clean process,” Deason said. “To district-level decision-makers that data is always a day old.”

She told the board the program is not fully relational. There are separate files for each school year.

“If you ask me, ‘Can you tell me all the students who were absent 10 or more days for the last three years at every school,’ you are going to see me sink down a little bit, because I know I’m in for some work,” Deason said.

She said to accomplish that she would have to search each school separately because that is data that does not report to the district. She would have to look at each individual school year from each of the schools and then compare the data.

Deason said another problem with SASI is when there are patches or updates to the software, it has to be installed at each site. She said in the last 12 months there have been 14 upgrades to the software, and that must be applied at 15 sites in the school district, for a total of 210 upgrades.

“We have a lot of different software packages that have to talk to each other,” she said. “Because SASI is distributed, we either have to replicate this effort at every school, or we have to go by information that is available.”

She said replications must be made at every school every time the report card template changes, and each year she must rebuild the connections for each of the sites.

“Maintaining this is time-consuming and (there is) a lot of potential for mistakes,” Deason said.

She said after explaining all the problems, the board was most likely curious as to why the system began using SASI.

Deason said support for the previous software was ending, and the system had to change to a new student information system at that time. Most of the systems in the state began using SASI at that time.

She said there were Web-based programs available at the time, but the system did not have a wide area network capable of supporting that type of program.

“Our network is 800 times faster than what we had then,” Deason said.

Assistant Superintendent Gregg Arnsdorff told the board members there was not a need for the system to have a network to meet the system’s technology needs at that time.

“It’s easy when you are in a city and the cable companies around, and a lot of the infrastructure is there,” Arnsdorff said. “We began the process of trying to develop a wide area network, which is a connection to the Internet.”

He said the schools had to build access to the Internet for the students.

“We had one great partner that was laying out there and we didn’t know about,” Arnsdorff said. Planters Telephone Cooperative serves the western area of the county west of Effingham County High School south to South Effingham Elementary.

“Planters had already laid fiber to the doorsteps right outside our campuses of all of our schools in the area they serve,” Arnsdorff said. “They provide us service at a minimum cost. They do one of the greatest services as far as technology of anyone we have around here.”

He said it was easy to deal with the southern end but they needed to find out how to make a network.

The board of education ran a fiber line from the board office to Effingham County High School. Because of the expense of fiber, the system needed another way to expand the network from the board office to Ebenezer, Rincon and to connect the network at SEE.

By having the network make a complete loop, if something happens to the fiber the hardware will send the information in the opposite direction, allowing the schools to stay online.

“The system is working. We are able to provide high speed data access,” Arnsdorff said.

He said students also have access to streaming video for information related to daily lessons.

“We had to make it happen internally with the help of our friends at Planters,” Arnsdorff said.

Deason said it is important to find a software package that will meet more than one need.

“The more integrated the system is, the more it will be used,” she said.

She said it would allow for teachers to use data that is available to improve instruction.

Deason said the teacher gradebook is not a truly Web-based software. The teachers can access it from home as long as the software is installed on the school and home computers. It also doesn’t work with the new version of the Windows operating system.

“InteGrade does not recover very well,” she said.

If a teacher’s Internet access goes down while working in the gradebook, the teacher could lose the recently added information or the grade book.

Deason said the system also uses TestTrax. The software does not allow for current information and does not update with SASI. It is also does not encourage teachers to use the system.

Arnsdorff said the system leaves the test results in the system until the end of August but must delete the information so teachers have information on their current year.

Deason said a number of parents have been asking to have a parent portal.

“I think we need one,” she said. “It is something the community is really beginning to demand, and I think they have a right to demand it. The technology is available, and it is time we begin using that.”

She said SASI has a program, with additional cost, that updates nightly. Web-based products would allow parents real-time information to their child’s information, including the gradebook for their child and attendance records.

Deason told the board there are several Web-based programs available, and there is a committee of teachers, nurses, administrators and other staff members looking to find the system that will meet the majority of the needs of the system.

She said there should be a recommendation to the board in the middle of April.