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Schools' search for software narrows

Educators use computer data for a bit of everything: choosing which lessons to emphasize, what programs are working and how to spend tax dollars. Parents need information, too, to stay informed about their children's education.

But extracting useful data from the school district's notoriously clunky computer system is a challenge.

Next month the School Board is poised to fix that problem by purchasing a new student information system called SASIxp, which comes with a price tag of $382,417. Future support and maintenance will run another $38,471 annually after the first year.

If the board approves that purchase, the district will get more than just new ways to generate extensive reports.

Teachers would get tools to take attendance, keep in touch with students' parents and compile and file grades. From their computer stations, they can call up information about a child's entire educational history, phone number and discipline record. Seating charts can be done through the system so that attendance information can be transmitted immediately to the school office, and report card grades can be entered electronically, which cannot be done with the current technology.

Also, the board would get a system called ParentCONNECTxp, which would allow parents to have direct access to information about their child's grades, classwork and attendance through their home computers.

"Kids say it's bad technology," said Amy Ashkar, a senior account representative for Pearson Digital Learning, which distributes the software, to the School Board on Tuesday. "It definitely changes the dinner conversations at home, especially when parents know what's going on in the classroom."

Administrators will use the software to compile information for required reports to the state and federal government, and principals will be able to build class schedules and keep track of textbooks through the program.

SASIxp was chosen over other systems studied extensively by district staff, Steve Chamblin, coordinator of informational services, told the board Tuesday.

The need for better data for decision-making, plus the growing cost of maintaining the district's old system, which has been in place since 1989, were factors in deciding to make the major investment in new software. The old system will still be used for some business functions in the district.

One plus of SASIxp over the other systems is that it meshes with other software already in use in the district, including Abacus. The Abacus system has gotten much attention from the School Board because so few teachers have been using it, yet the district continues to pay for it.

Recently the board has pushed to see Abacus in use, and schools have responded by using the software to design tests similar to the important Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Abacus allows teachers to analyze the results of those FCAT-like tests so they know where to focus lessons in preparation for the real FCAT.

The purchase price for the new system will include extensive training, some of it computer based.

"My concern is that teachers are comfortable with what they're using now," board member Ginger Bryant said.

"Teacher response has been very, very positive," Ashkar said.

"Teachers in the high schools are very dissatisfied with the way that they do grades now," said board Chairwoman Sandra "Sam" Himmel. Then she spoke to Chamblin, who oversees district technology. "Are you happy?"

"It looks like a good solution," he said of the software.

_ Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or behrendtsptimes.com.

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