New IDEAS: Putting the School Interoperability Framework to the Test

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The Jurupa Unified School District in Southern California recently partnered with Microsoft, Dell and the Zone Integration Group for the implementation of a School Interoperability Framework (SIF) database repository model throughout the district (Magner 2002). A two-week project — the Integrated District Education Applications System, better known as New IDEAS — targeted the effective adoption of an integrated IT platform that would enable the district to automate routine tasks, integrate data across the district's core applications and drive process improvements. Budget constraints, coupled with increasing demands from local, state and federal requirements for data reporting, made it imperative that the district carefully maximize all investments in upgraded technologies. By optimizing processes in order to incorporate the ability to aggregate and share data across core systems, as well as by making this information readily available to all constituent groups throughout the district, technological and budgetary goals would be met.

Establishing a Data Repository

Implementing information technology to drive instruction is not a new concept to the Jurupa USD. In 1999, the district embarked on an aggressive project to create new curriculum standards and criterion-referenced tests for both formative and summative assessments, as well as to measure subsequent student performance. As the process evolved, test-item banks were developed for all grade levels. Statisticians and psychometricians provided staff development to the district assessment department to instill the rigor to establish the required instruments, ensuring validity of the test items. Following stabilization of the mechanics, the major decisions surrounding data collection, analysis and reporting were approached. The very basic, but pivotal, question of exactly how the district would use the disaggregated data to influence classroom instruction was also examined.

As soon as Jurupa USD had established an education technology department, the curriculum and instruction department turned to the newly appointed director of education technology to investigate available products to ascertain what would best fit the needs of the district. The answer was surprising and the need far greater than initially anticipated, so we knew a data warehouse must be developed. From that moment in 1999 forward, the development of a data repository that would interface with the multiple databases already existing throughout the school sites and district office became our ongoing central focus.

The process was slow for two primary reasons. First, the cost of this undertaking was excessive and very few school districts throughout the nation could be identified as good models in data mining. Second, the typical manual reporting structures and electronic spreadsheets of the past had not yet failed the district; they remained deeply embedded. However, now, as the importance of the data surpassed that of the technology, a paradigm shift occurred. The question became focused on what was needed to establish a data repository toward district accountability.

Phases to Success

As data became pivotal to instructional decisions, storing and retrieving data became processes of vital importance because they would allow principals and district office personnel to query multiple databases. Jurupa USD decided to invest in resources to build a data repository that would meet the overwhelming demands of the multiple measures required for local, state and federal reporting. First, the district hired a database administrator, and small projects such as "data marts" and "cubes" were developed to distribute and collect the appropriate queries to answer local, state and federal reporting requirements. As California instituted tighter accountability measures, the demand for data increased proportionately. It became apparent that the process of developing a data warehouse necessitated a phased plan to ultimately obtain the needed product.

Through a series of meetings with the data committee and school principals, the message became clear to all that the central data repository was vital to the effective operation of the entire district and the effective instruction for its students. The decision was made to commission a project that was able to meet all the data demands within the district. Through diligent research by the district network manager and database administrator, the opportunity for the corporate partnership described earlier emerged. Numerous teleconferencing sessions were conducted over a four-month period before a timeline was proposed for the project.

New IDEAS was launched in July 2003, with its implementation to be conducted in the following four phases:

Phase one involved detailed assessment and documentation of the current infrastructure and processes in place within the district. Meetings with key stakeholders were held to identify and understand the information required for effective employee performance, information flow and end-user access. From the assessment data collected, current procedures were examined for process improvements, data integration and automation opportunities.

Phase two of the project was to lay the foundation for the sharing of data among the existing core business applications in place throughout the district. This was to be accomplished via implementation of the SIF model. SIF is the result of an initiative within the educational software industry to standardize the sharing of information between disparate software applications typically used within K-12 school districts ("The Work Behind SIF's Framework" 2002).

Through the use of open standards information from the Student Information System (SIS), data can be shared automatically and seamlessly with other applications commonly used for library, food services or transportation operations within the district. This eliminates redundant, expensive and error-prone data entry into multiple systems. For example, when a student enrolls at a school site, the information is entered into the SIS and pertinent information is automatically embedded in the other department systems linked to the SIS through the SIF model ("How SIF Works" 2002). Any changes in student records are also automatically updated in all other linked systems.

Phase three will build a robust reporting platform to reside on top of the data-integration capabilities. This will entail the use of data marts and data warehousing to collect and aggregate historical case-level data and tools enabling end users to quickly access information through a Web interface. The key to the ultimate success of the New IDEAS collaboration and goals will be the ability to place timely, accurate information into the hands of people who can use it best toward improved teaching and learning experiences for students and other district stakeholders.

Finally, phase four will integrate all district information into a central Web portal, consolidating multiple interfaces into a single point of entry to all information resources.

Project Implementation

New IDEAS was conceived through meetings among strategically positioned personnel within Jurupa USD and the three partnering technology corporations. The developed plan encompassed the entire project from the assigned tasks through to the ultimate outcome. The project team consistently brainstormed expected roadblocks, pitfalls and other potential adverse scenarios; however, positive attitudes were maintained as all remained confident of a successful outcome.

Ongoing discussions focused on issues such as available software, the layout of databases and the logistics of the data transfer throughout the district. These group analyses greatly assisted in determining appropriate future implementation plans and system inclusions (e.g., transportation and human resources applications, the Microsoft Class Server, the intranet portal and even MS Windows Active Directory).

Once the logistics were understood, an installation strategy was formed. The installation began with a new server and Windows 2003 Enterprise. However, just as the installation was completed, the technicians were informed of adverse technical issues with a Windows 2003 installation in another school district four months earlier. Following re-evaluation, conversion back to the Windows 2000 Advanced Server was initiated, running Service Pack 3 with MS SQL Server 2000 and MS BizTalk Server 2002. Once the rollback was completed, further instructions suggested moving to Service Pack 4 and .NET Framework 1.1 Service Pack 1.

After a measure of trial and error, all server software was installed and the technicians were ready to introduce the Zone Integration Server (ZIS) and repository ("How SIF Works" 2002). Due to changes in the SIF specifications, it was necessary for the software company to update the ZIS. During the downtime of about two days, the technicians upgraded all of the applications to be used in the pilot run of the vendor-suggested versions. Then, roughly five days into the project, all software on the server was ready, including all upgrades of the SIF-compliant software. The technicians were now ready to fire up the ZIS. Technical personnel from the ZIS software company connected to the server and performed a remote SIF server install. With a few configuration changes to the server, the software installation progressed smoothly.

Software Communication

Once the ZIS was up and running, the technicians concentrated on the SIF objects, which are comprised of various software elements. These objects originate from different systems ("How SIF Works" 2002); the SIS and the food service system are examples. They include objects such as SchoolInfo, StudentSchoolEnrollment, StudentPersonal, StaffPersonal, StudentSectionEnrollment, SectionInfo, SchoolCourseInfo, StudentMeals, TermInfo and others. It was the responsibility of the technicians to determine which objects needed to be published and which software packages were needed to support them. Subscriptions to the necessary software packages are handled much like magazine subscriptions: the publisher requests the necessary information from subscribers.

However, it is possible to act as both a publisher and a subscriber, which creates a scenario parallel to the following example: Student enrollment information is entered into the SIS, the change is published to the food service system, and the student is approved for the free- or reduced-lunch program. The food service system subsequently publishes the data back to the subscribers of the StudentMeals object. In this case, the SIS is a subscriber of the object; consequently, the approval status can also be placed into the SIS database.

Once the location of objects is determined, the technicians are able to work with the SIS to update the SIF agent, thereby allowing the ZIS to publish the required objects; in this case, there was a delay. The SIF agent was not completed, and more development was required by the SIS vendor. It was now day two of week two and time was running out. The SIS vendor was able to get the agent to the technicians, and the vendor assisted with the install over the phone. Within 20 minutes, the agent was registered with the ZIS. With the food service system, communication with the ZIS was relatively simple. Even though the vendor of the food service software was new to the SIF consortium, and working with Jurupa USD was their first attempt at implementation of the SIF agent, all went smoothly. However, answers to important questions were needed from the vendor such as: Why was an agent needed on all servers, and why was a single agent in the central office insufficient?

The decision was made by the technicians involved in this project to install the agent solely on the central office server; subsequently, distributing it to the sites with scheduled tasks that involved use of the food service software package. However, the technicians suddenly discovered that the SIS agent did not support agent-to-agent requests for data; therefore, the repository would be needed. With assistance from the ZIS software vendor, it was found that the changes to the SIF specifications had not been upgraded in the repository. Consequently, another delay was introduced and quickly rectified.

Lessons Learned

New IDEAS presented many lessons learned for all involved. The effort extended by the school district to build a functional SIF system was dependent upon a number of pre-established and operable technical and managerial strategies. Emphasis must be made here that the desired outcome has little to do with possessing the newest and best technology, or even the best means of accessing available data. The outcome is totally dependent upon the quality of data generated in the provision of meaningful information. Knowledge acquired in this manner will ultimately empower leadership to close the gap in student achievement through good, data-driven decision-making.

Upon completion of the New IDEAS project, Jurupa USD will reap the following benefits:

  • Shared and aggregated data across core applications;
  • Enhanced data integrity;
  • Robust reporting capabilities;
  • Enhanced tools for effective development and delivery of curriculum;
  • Online access to pertinent and timely information for teachers, parents and students;
  • A unified user interface for access to information across the district; and
  • An open standards platform that is scalable in the future.

At day five of week two, the two-week SIF project was completed; the New IDEAS project at Jurupa USD is now 90% complete. Final success for the latter project is now dependent upon additional software vendors donating SIF agents to the district in order to render the system operational.

New IDEAS, coupled with SIF, is a model project for school districts to emulate nationwide. It represents an opportunity for business and K-12 education to establish mutually beneficial partnerships. It also represents a unique opportunity for districts to develop a strategic plan toward dramatic improvement in curriculum development and delivery, thereby maintaining that critical focus on student learning outcomes via data-driven decision-making.

References

"How SIF Works." 2002. T.H.E. Journal 29 (8). Online: www.thejournal.com/magazine/vault/A3949.cfm.

Magner, T. 2002. "A Message From SIF." T.H.E. Journal 29 (8). Online: www.thejournal.com/magazine/vault/A3947.cfm.

"The Work Behind SIF's Framework." 2002. T.H.E. Journal 29 (8). Online: www.thejournal.com/magazine/vault/A3948.cfm.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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