Aug 212013


By Ann Doss Helms —

Computer glitches probably top this year’s list of back-to-school jitters for North Carolina educators.

Most of the state’s 1.5 million public school students return to school Monday. And that provides the first massive test of PowerSchool, a data system that controls everything from bus routes to attendance records to grades.

The statewide rollout is a first for Pearson School Systems, a New York-based technology company that created PowerSchool. While it’s been successful around the nation, PowerSchool has never been used for a district as large as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools or the Wake County Public School System, said Philip Price, technology chief for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

“It’s huge,” Price said of the transition, which replaces the former system known as NC WISE.

As the system has been tested this summer, there have been slowdowns and crashes. Many schools have struggled to create class schedules for middle and high school students, especially those who didn’t get their classes lined up last spring.

“I’m going to make an impassioned plea to our community for patience,” CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison told the school board recently.

Teacher vacancies

Meanwhile, all the other work of gearing up for opening day continues, from filling teacher vacancies to putting finishing touches on new schools to preparing classes for digital learning.

CMS is still seeking 92 teachers, with 223 more in the process of having their hiring finalized, Chief Human Resources Officer Terri Cockerham said at a back-to-school news conference Tuesday. Those numbers might sound daunting, but the 92 vacancies represent less than 1 percent of the CMS teaching force of 9,508. Cockerham said it’s slightly lower than the number of vacancies the week before school began in 2012.

In CMS, teacher assistants aren’t joining this week’s preparations, as they have in years past. When the state cut money for assistant jobs, the district eliminated vacant posts and cut back work schedules for the remaining assistants. The resulting pay decreases averted the need to cut more jobs and lay off assistants, CMS officials say.

That means instead of helping teachers set up classrooms and get materials ready, the assistants will report with the students on Monday.

Going digital

School districts around the state are boosting digital options, as online testing and lessons are replacing paper exams and textbooks.

CMS’ 160 schools will have full Wi-Fi capability within the building, allowing students to work online using their own or school-provided tablets, laptops and e-readers. However, almost 1,000 mobile classrooms are not yet equipped, which means schools will have to ensure that all students get a chance to come inside for computer work.

The mobiles will be equipped over the next two years, said Valerie Truesdale, the CMS administrator in charge of technology.

Union County is expanding its laptop initiative to provide computers to all students in grades 3-12, with 26,000 laptops being issued as school begins. Students will be allowed to take them home – an approach modeled by Mooresville Graded Schools in Iredell County.

Lincoln County Schools is expanding its cyber-robotics program, while Iredell-Statesville Schools launches a virtual high school called iACADEMY.

Prepping and hoping

But it’s the behind-the-scenes technology that has creating the most uncertainty.

Pearson bought the old North Carolina data system in 2010 and phased it out, forcing the state to choose between a one-year transition or a more costly two-year phase-in. North Carolina went with one year, which means state and local educators have been scrambling to master PowerSchool for the last few months.

Price said DPI staff have worked closely with officials in Wake and CMS to test the system. Wake has extensive year-round schools that opened in July, and CMS launched four such schools this summer.

Denise Watts, the administrator who oversees the year-round schools in the CMS Project LIFT zone, says those schools experienced crashes and slowdowns and sometimes had to rely on paper backup copies of records. But “it wasn’t anything that kept us from opening schools,” she said.

Price hopes for the best as about 2,700 traditional and charter schools open Monday, all of them flooding the system with back-to-school data. Districts such as CMS, which met the June 1 deadline for getting 2013-14 schedules entered into the old system, seem to be doing better in the final stretch than those that waited, he said.

“Now, is everybody loving us? No, I don’t think so,” Price said wryly.

Once the startup bugs are squashed, the vision is a system that lets teachers, students and parents have easy access to timely data. The ultimate goal is crafting lessons that are better tailored to each student’s situation.

“There’s going to be a lot of happy people,” Price said. “That’s my opinion of where it’s going to be.”

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