Charlotte schools in sweat over data shift

The Charlotte ObserverNovember 12, 2012 

— A data disaster could be looming this summer, as North Carolina rushes toward a total reboot of the statewide electronic system linked to everything from grades and class schedules to bus routes and student assignment, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools staff warned the school board last week.

On July 1, the NC Wise system educators and families know will vanish, replaced by an upgraded student information system called PowerSchool. Jay Parker, one of CMS’ top technology administrators, said the quick transition requires an unprecedented data transfer, with about $1 million in costs to CMS to train staff and hire extra help.

“I wouldn’t call it crazy, but it’s really out there,” Parker said of the timetable. “The risks are big, the concerns many.”

Philip Price, chief financial officer for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, said last week he believes the state can convince CMS officials the plan is workable.

“Mecklenburg’s concerns are real. It’s going to be painful for them and everybody else,” Price said. “This is not going to be an easy transition, but in the end it’s going to be worth it.”

The challenge is most intense in Mecklenburg and Wake counties, which are not only larger than other N.C. districts but have entwined NC Wise into more complex data systems than most districts have. In CMS, for instance, about 79,000 families use Parent Assist to check students’ assignments, grades and attendance. That will shift to a new Parent Portal system as part of this summer’s switch.

The conversion means middle and high schools must enter 2013-14 class schedules by May 1 this year, before students have taken exams that could determine their placement, Parker said. If the transition doesn’t go smoothly, virtually every CMS operation could be affected.

Forced to change

So why do it? Pearson School Systems, an educational technology company, bought NC Wise in 2010 and announced plans to close it. Price said the state had to choose between one- and two-year transition plans. The one-year plan was cheaper and will speed up getting teachers across the state better access to student data, he said.

Parker and CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison told the board they asked state officials to help cover local costs and slow down the transition, leaving some overlap between old and new systems. The state rejected both requests.

Morrison said the district’s 2012-13 budget doesn’t include the estimated $1 million cost of additional staff and training. “We thought we’d have a couple bake sales,” he joked.

Morrison said he’ll find the money in the district’s $1.2 billion budget. “We need to do it well and do it right. We can’t afford not to,” he said. “This will directly impact how we start next year.”

Price said he thinks CMS has overestimated the costs. He said Pearson has staff working with CMS and the state to anticipate and iron out any problems, with “benchmark” dates to ensure the transition is on track.

State: CMS ‘angst’ will ease

“We recognize that the speed is very, very fast, but Pearson is putting people on the ground to make it happen,” Price said. CMS “angst” will ease as more details emerge, he said.

South Carolina took 2 1 2 years to phase all its school districts into a statewide PowerSchool system. But in that case, each district ran its own system. North Carolina already has a statewide student information system, Price said.

Morrison, who started his job July 1, said it’s unfortunate that a big change is landing as he tries to restore employee morale and public confidence in CMS data. Big technology changes tend to be difficult even when they go well, he said.

School board member and banker Eric Davis agreed: “Having participated in data conversions in banking, I can understand why you’re sweating.”

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