Data Management | Feature

Schools Crunch Big Data With Free Software

When a charter school with a small student body wanted to collect, analyze, and use data in a new way, it did what any feisty little up-start would do--it created its own program. Of course, a little help from a cloud computing powerhouse helped.

When a charter school with a small student body wanted to collect, analyze, and use data in a new way, it did what any feisty little up-start would do--it created its own program. Of course, a little help from a cloud computing powerhouse helped.

E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, a PreK-9 school in Washington, D.C., with 700 students spread out over three campuses, collaborated with Acumen Solutions to create SchoolForce, a cloud-based data management system that does things few other software systems do.

"We're a highly regulated industry, as public education, and student data is really critical," says Jennie Niles, founder and head of E.L. Haynes. "We were needing to use 10-plus different systems that would either not talk to each other, or not talk to each other easily."

What Niles wanted was a single system that would seamlessly collect all the data available so that her staff could look at an individual child, the entire school, or any combination of data to identify trends or measure the outcomes of a particular program. She wanted, in short, to do what everyone wants to do with data--make it useful.

Niles had no way to collect grades, attendance records, discipline referrals, rewards, homework completion, and other relevant information into a single database or report. Instead, it was scattered throughout a hodge-podge of paper tracking and disparate technologies. Dave Joubran, a board member at Haynes, just happened to also be the CEO of Acumen Solutions. He suggested the teachers and administrators talk to his staff about their priorities. Then they built what the school needed and last year turned its introduction to E.L. Haynes into a pilot program for its new cloud-based SchoolForce.

Using force.com, the platform on which the very popular salesforce.com runs, Acumen developed a series of modules, or apps, that addressed Niles' goals of usability, scalability, accessibility, and comprehensive reporting.

"Force.com has analysis tools built into it," Niles says. "Most of the other [data tracking] products on the market are creators of dashboards, and that's great. But when you think of what it really means to run an institution that's data-driven, the dashboards are only one piece. You…need to actually have the collaborative work of adults looking at that data, hypothesizing [about] what's going on, putting in an intervention, and seeing if it works. SchoolForce actually allows you to have technology support during all of those different steps, not just the creation of the dashboard."

A year into its pilot project at E.L. Haynes, SchoolForce now is used by several schools. In addition to the data collection and analytics, educators can share documents and communicate internally via school-based social media resources. The portal (or dashboard) allows teachers, parents, and students password-restricted access.

Public schools get the software at no charge. They are required to have the necessary source.com licenses to run SchoolForce, and there are costs associated with the installation and training on the software. Acumen Solutions also offers a traditional maintenance contract for schools that prefer not to have an IT staff manage the system.

But once the program is in place, a school can "turn on" an existing module it wasn't previously using, add a new module when it's available, and generally manage the system its own way. Any modules developed by Acumen are free to those who use the program. Modules in use at E.L. Haynes include Chatter, sort of an internal Facebook for teachers; an online school lunch payment system; a grade book; an attendance record; and a homework tracker.

"Although it's built and delivered in a traditional software product delivery mode, all of the resulting products are licensed for free to our end customers," says Kristin Muhlner, the Acumen product development lead for the program. "Acumen is developing a third-party development community around this whole platform to try to encourage other system integrators or school districts with larger IT organizations to build their own applications and contribute them back to the community."

Muhlner says this open-source approach works well in the academic environment because schools benefit by sharing best practices. Her team is also working on creating modules related to academic intervention management, teacher performance management, and mobile enablement so that mobile devices can access SchoolForce.

A consortium of 10 charter schools in Washington, D.C., including E.L. Haynes, was awarded a Race to the Top Instructional Improvement Systems grant to develop and pilot new modules. Niles says all of the schools will share information and collaborate through SchoolForce.

"Being cloud-based is what made this all possible," Niles says. "We're just about to go live with the portal, which is the way kids and families will be able to see the electronic grade book 24/7. They don't see exactly what teachers see, but they will be able to check students' progress against the mastery of standards anytime they want. And that's what you want."

"It's crazy that we run education so that kids don't see [their progress]," Niles adds. "If they see the results of their work, they're more inclined to say, 'Oh look, if I work hard, I can change this.'"

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