Case Study: Data Warehousing at Hillsborough County Public Schools

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One of the country's largest school districts has found great success in managing student records through a customized data warehousing, reporting, and analytics package. Teachers and administrators are extremely pleased with the tool, which helps them track the large and often transient student populations they serve in rapidly growing Hillsborough County, Florida.

For the last two years, Hillsborough County Public Schools has been working with Central Minnesota Educational Research and Development Council, or cmERDC, on the development of a customized solution using Viewpoint, cmERDC's data warehouse, reporting, and analysis tool. Viewpoint is a student data warehouse and data management system specifically designed for K12. Formerly owned by Sagebrush Corp., it was sold to cmERDC in early 2007. (Sagebrush itself is now owned by Follett.) cmERDC is an organization of 75 school districts in central Minnesota that cooperatively develops and provides products and services for public and private schools.

Hillsborough is the eighth-largest school district in the United States, with more than 200,000 students. The district's students include children of Hillsborough County's large migrant population, in which many students frequently transfer from school to school as parents follow jobs. As Florida's population has mushroomed, maintaining up to date student records using standard paper folders has become increasingly difficult. As new students transferred into class mid-year, the teacher would wait days or weeks for students' associated paper-based "cumulative" folders to arrive.

Building a customized technology solution hasn't happened overnight. Hillsborough is in its third year of a process that began with the gathering of ideas and information from potential users in both the school system and the community. Jan Holden, the Instructional Planning Tool Project Manager at Hillsborough who serves as system administrator for the Viewpoint system, said that after extensive meetings with a variety of users to determine what such a system should include, the district took that information to Sagebrush. Since then, Hillsborough has worked closely with programmers at Sagebrush and now cmERDC to tailor the Viewpoint application specifically for Hillsborough's needs. Hillsborough began using the software early in 2005 and continues to add to and enhance the system.

The result has delighted both teachers and administrators. "This is such a user-friendly interface," Holden said. "People ... are really pleased to have [the information it offers] at their fingertips." In fact, the popularity of the product is such that what started as a software tool largely for teachers has now been expanded to include secretaries, clerical workers, and resource officers, among others. Nearly everyone in the district who needs information about students, Holden explained, "can use this to their benefit. We've added and added and added [users]." The software is now used by some 35,000 to 40,000 users throughout the district, Holden said, and, for the most part, users are "ecstatic. They even call me at home. It's nice to work on a program that people like and use so much."

Data in Viewpoint's huge student database is updated nightly, allowing authorized users immediate access to the latest student information, including demographic, assessment, and classroom reports. A student summary for every child includes years of specific assessment results and all of the student's class schedules for grades six and up. (Elementary schools do not currently store their grades electronically.)

The original drive behind the database project was a need to allow teachers, principals, and administrators easier access to student data. The district's student information system is housed on a mainframe, which precluded direct access by classroom teachers. A request for a report could take days or weeks.

In building the system, Holden has kept the needs of the district top-of-mind. "We've tried very hard to cater to our teachers," Holden said, because of the specific challenges they face in the district. "We have a large migrant population, as well as a large population of exceptional students." That kind of disparate student population means a need for teachers to have lots of detailed information on students immediately at their fingertips.

For example, one key piece of information that the Viewpoint system produces is information for teachers on how students performed on the most recent standardized test. Teachers can view each student's strengths and weaknesses, Holden said, while teachers or administrators can take a higher-level view, discerning patterns for grade levels, subject areas, and entire schools. With three to four years of student information visible, teachers can examine specific data and click on various areas to "drill down" and find patterns.

Teachers find the system so easy to use that they may consult it several times a day, Holden said. It's exceptionally useful, for example, during teacher conferences with parents, since a teacher can quickly access a child's information on a single student summary screen that includes all information, including grades, absences, demographics, and emergency contact information from the sixth grade on. Teachers, who do not enter any data into the system, but access it only, can also access information from home over an Internet connection.

The Viewpoint system links to the district's custom student information system, which is still housed on the district's mainframe computer. Data is maintained in the mainframe and imported and exported as needed to and from a variety of databases, including Viewpoint, a Lawson information system, and an LDAP directory.

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About the author: Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, CA.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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