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Pixel Panacea: How Databases Revolutionized the Way Our School District Teaches, Evaluates, Reports, and Administrates

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Motivated by new, stringent state-reporting requirements, the Union City Board of Education looked to technology to improve the way it handles information. What we found is that with a custom database system, we could do what was expected of us—more with less.

If you had told me five years ago that a single mechanism could improve student outcomes, shave dollars off of budgets, provide complex sets of data analysis on demand, and offer a bird’s-eye view of teachers, students, classrooms, and budgets for my district, I would have thought you’d lost your mind. Yet, that’s exactly what database technology has done for the Union City school district. In a matter of five years, this technology has literally transformed the way our schools function. Here’s exactly how we did it and why it has worked:

The Impetus



It’s almost quaint to think of it now, but a mere five years ago, each of the 12 schools in the Union City district was run out of its respective file cabinets. Important data was stored on index cards and papers, and an “elite guard” of administrators controlled access to information about students and staff. We’re talking 10,000 students and 1,500 faculty and non-instructional employees worth of paper documentation.

Everything from teacher evaluations to field-trip forms, to grades and standardized-test results, was neatly tucked away in metal drawers. Everything, that is, except for budgets, which were generated and maintained by the central office. We had our way of doing things and, for the most part, it worked.

Then, with the advent of the No Child Left Behind Act, and monies received as part of the state’s “Abbott” system, the Union City Board of Education found itself faced with new, stringent reporting requirements that the current “system” simply could not support.

So, in the fall of 2001, we brought together key stakeholders to discuss the best way to go about modifying the way we think about, generate, process, store, and share information. It didn’t take us long to figure out that, in a world where we are expected to do more with less, the key to our problems would be to move from hard copies to hard drives.

Challenges

According to the state, our schools needed to choose a whole-school reform model as well as prepare an up-to-date needs assessment of the educational program, operational plan, and school-based budget.

We began by disaggregating the schools’ budget information kept in the central office. Additionally, while we were decentralizing some information on the one hand, we were facilitating the consolidation of other information. Our first step was to organize school-management teams that included a wide spectrum of faculty, parents, and staff. If we were going to effect positive change on a school level—or at the very least create school-based budgets—we needed to have an empowered body of minds that were representative of our diverse district.

To get things started, the school-management teams began discussing what their vision of an improved system looked like, took inventory, performed needs assessment, evaluated their current status, and then set forth goals and objectives for this new system.

As the management teams met, several challenges emerged. They knew they wanted to reduce paper, create a more-efficient workflow, and find an orderly way to collect data—but how? In order to streamline workflow and avoid duplication of efforts, they had to create an environment in which everyone would be a stakeholder and a data collector. That meant creating a single source of data accessible from multiple points. That meant technology.

Many Problems, One Answer

While the school-management teams were meeting, so too were the members of the strategic-planning team’s fiscal-planning and program-review task forces. They were reaching some of the same conclusions as the school-management teams, and the more they thought about their needs and challenges, the more databases seemed like the perfect answer. The schools needed a place to store data, records, and profiles—databases can do that. The schools needed to be able to deliver data to desktops for use in school-based decisions—databases can do that. The schools needed to share complex sets of data through customized views to many users—databases can do that, too. So it seemed that the one resounding answer to their many challenges was database technology.

Putting Systems into Place

In agreement that database technology was the best answer to our district’s collective needs, we researched and purchased an HR database, taking into consideration ease of use, cross-platform capabilities, and expandability. Establishing a partnership with a software developer, FileMaker Pro, was key, as was customization. In the end, we created 15 forms for employee evaluation, one-page snapshots of records for employee profiles, five-year budgetary projections with summary and detail, a catalog of professional-development courses and credits, added pay/added day—extra-duties pay, and policy file-web-enabled, cost-effective solutions. Since 2001, our 35 databases have grown to 115 databases, all inter-related, providing record-level access security.

With today’s ever-changing technology, our implementation is continuous. It only took us two years, though, to complete phase one in which we culled data. Three additional years were designated to expansion of end users; this included implementing professional development and tracking the database (evaluation forms, extended-day payrolls, etc.).

All Aboard the Database Train

It’s easy enough, reading this, to see how databases would drastically improve nearly every aspect of the way our schools functioned. As much as some people are energized by change, there are always those who are averse to it. We knew that putting this revolutionary system into place would be absolutely worthless if we didn’t have buy-in on every level. In order to make sure that everyone from the secretaries to the principals were onboard, we maintained clear and constant communication, kept our focus on the big picture rather than bogging people down in technical minutiae, provided training, and really listened to solicited feedback. We found that support for the project reached its peak as people saw their input incorporated and peers shared their enthusiasm with one another. Even the “elite guard,” with their file cabinet keys and strict rules regarding access to information, were easily won over once they realized that the new system empowered them in a different way while also simplifying their jobs.

Results

What started off as a quest for a way to satisfy state requirements has turned into an incredibly enlightening period for our school district. We now have a system that simplifies data input, allows flexible analysis, shows trends over time, facilitates standardization across the district, provides security and flexibility, and reduces costs.

With our customized FileMaker Pro database, we can measure school-based initiatives in a whole new way. We can identify specific factors affecting outcomes and create campus profiles that help us identify sub-populations requiring specialized services. We can analyze relationships between programs and performance improvements and even pinpoint why initiatives fall short. The databases also provide granular information about remediation needs and can even help us identify the types of test questions that students answer incorrectly, enabling us to subdivide strands into more-specific skills.

Before, we could easily tell how many days a student had missed from school, but it would have been difficult for us to discern whether this was due to truancy, prolonged illness, or family problems. We could compile grades and test scores to determine which students needed to attend summer school, but it would have been difficult for us to ascertain why these students were performing poorly or why there might be a discrepancy between a classroom grade and test scores. We could have determined that one class taught by an instructor was less successful than another class taught by that same instructor, but it would’ve been nearly impossible for us to discern what the different contributing factors were that led to one class’s success and the other’s failure.

With the new system and its intuitive features, virtually everything is maintained electronically and as such can be analyzed in ways previously unimaginable. We can now also project salaries for a multi-year employee contract, restructure district-level management plans, and route and track tasks.

There is not a single aspect of our school system that has not been profoundly affected by the implementation of FileMaker Pro. Thanks to this technology, we have a more intricate and intuitive relationship with our administration, teachers, students, and their families. We aren’t limited to just evaluating the end results; we have the tools in place to find out exactly how we ended up there and what we need to do to get moving in a different direction. It’s as if all the pieces to a puzzle have been brought together, and now we can approach our day-to-day challenges with a newfound clarity.

The most amazing thing for me in this whole process has been to realize what treasure troves of information those file cabinets were—we just couldn’t connect all the dots until we began using the database technology. We were data rich all along, just analysis poor.

About the Author

Anthony N. Dragona has worked for the Union City Board of Education for 32 years in a variety of capacities. He has been a teacher, principal, vice principal handling student data, and, since 1999, has been the school-business administrator. The 2005 recipient of the Meritorious Service Award, presented by NJ Assoc. of School Business Officials, Dragona is a qualified purchasing agent by the NJ Dept. of Community Affairs and a registered school-business official with Association of School Business Officials International. He has presented workshops at the NJ School Boards Association Annual Conference, FileMaker Developer Conference, and Consortium of School Networking Conference. Under his management, the Union City Board of Education has received the Certificate of Excellence in Financial Reporting for 2003 through 2006 from the Association of School Business Officials International.
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