Beaverton’s school board eliminated more than 340 jobs last spring. Many teachers wound up with pink slips. Many who still had a job wound up in new classrooms, teaching different courses. But those aren’t the only big changes.
As part of OPB’s ongoing education series, Learning With Less, we’ll spend the next two mornings looking at how Beaverton’s difficulties with technology are affecting the classroom.
Rob Manning reports on a rapid overhaul of the vast student information system at Oregon’s third largest district.
The morning I visited Steve Langford at the Beaverton School District, he couldn’t talk to me right away.
The district’s chief information officer was on the phone with a parent, discussing computer problems.
Some parents were used to having access to their kids’ grades under the old system, called “ESIS.”
When Langford brought me into his office, I asked about that.
Rob: “And it sounds like you’ve been getting calls – like the one that you got just before we started, from parents. I imagine that they’re accustomed to being able to use ESIS, and now they’re disappointed, frustrated, annoyed, at not being able to use its replacement?”
Steve Langford: “Yes to all of the above.”
But the biggest critics of the new information system are teachers.
And they’ve been bringing their concerns to the head of their union, Karen Hoffman.
“There are a couple of complaints that I hear regularly, every single day, and have for the last month. Synergy is one of them. Class size is the second."
Synergy is the name of the new system. And Hoffman says its problems are significant.
“It’s a big deal, it’s a very big deal.”
Synergy is seen as the solution to another problem.
For years, Beaverton had relied on “ESIS” to compile state and federal reports, to keep track of families, and for teachers to do their grades.
Last spring, support for that last component – teacher grades – was thrown into question, because the software program was sold.
District information chief, Steve Langford, says the new vendor decided not to support the grading function.
“So were in a situation where a browser patch, or an operating system patch on the computer, could have broken the gradebook. And without the source code, we couldn’t fix it. So that was a high threat to our organization.”
Beaverton is part of a consortium of dozens of school districts including Portland, Hillsboro, andEugene planning to switch to Synergy.
But Steve Langford says Beaverton’s “high threat” meant it had to move quickly.
The school board approved overhauling a system of millions of data points and a thousand reports, at a breakneck pace.
“Normally, it’s about a year process. And we did it in about four months and five days.”
The transition has been rough. IT professionals in any industry will argue that overhauls have their problems.
But Beaverton’s switch comes at a tough time: lots of teacher turnover, and less staff around, in general because of funding cuts.
A few weeks into school, there’s a handful of school clerks typing away in a training room down the hall from Langford’s office.
They’re not training, on this day, though.
They’re trying to get a little peace to get some work done – according to data specialist, Sheila Bell.
“It could be some folks are new staff, some folks are working in buildings that are verychaotic right now. So, some of this is a data is so critical, that they need a quiet place to work, so they can make sure it goes in right the first time.There’s a lot of interruptions in a school office, so it makes it ideal if they can come in here and focus in a quiet environment, without having students, teachers, parents, and administrators all barraging them with a series of questions.”
Beaverton is spending a million dollars on the system over the next two years.
District tech staff say they’re hearing some compliments about the new system – the interface is more intuitive, for instance.
And they’re optimistic it’ll be a better system in the long run.
But school staff are struggling to learn the new functions. And parents are noticing the functions it doesn’t have.
Steve Langford says the tight timeline meant some compromises on training, and functionality.
“One feature that our previous system had was a ‘parent portal.’ So parents could log in, they could see attendance information, they could see some gradebook information. Due to our such tight timeline, for implementing Synergy, we just couldn’t get all the modules put into place, by the start of school."
District officials say many teachers didn’t interact with parents through the old system.
But some did, like Southridge High science teacher, Bradford Hill.
“We are not able to do everything I would like to do with it. We don’t have the feature to communicate with students and parents, which is a key feature. It is supposed to come online in January, and when that happens, that will significantly improve the situation.”
Union president Karen Hoffman argues the bigger concern for teachers is the new gradebook program.
Remember – the old gradebook is what forced the quick change to Synergy.
The new one?
“Teachers are extremely frustrated with putting grades in and having them disappear – then they have to do them in all over again, with just not understanding how it works, things malfunctioning. It’s been a very frustrating thing.”
District officials recently decided to allow teachers to use an alternative grading program for the current semester.
Southridge High principal, Todd Corsetti, says that was a good move.
“There’s a lot of advantages to this new system, but I think that comes with time and with understanding it, and we haven’t had the time to understand. What we’re doing is really building the plane and flying it, and that leads to some frustration for folks."
Teachers say they’ve appreciated being able to use a different grading system, day-to-day.
But they can’t avoid the central Synergy database altogether.
Mid-term grades are due – and those have to appear in Synergy.
So, teachers who likely have more students – and therefore more student grades – have to type all those grades into the new program.
And last week, as those first grades went into the system, IT managers said they were getting a steady stream of help desk calls.