Portage Public Schools Touts Excelsior Software's Open Database Architecture Solution

Portage Public Schools, near Kalamazoo, Mich., is a district with a tradition of high standards and performance. Standard & Poor's School Evaluation Services (www.ses.standardandpoors.com) reports that the district's above-average student results with spending are comparable to those at the statewide level. The district's per-student expenditures are on par with state averages, but lower than the average spending of S&P's peer districts with similar demographics. Equally impressive, Portage's student results in terms of test scores, graduation rates and percentages of college-bound students also exceed its S&P peer group.

So when Dan Vomastek, Portage Public Schools assessment and student information systems coordinator, began looking for new data collection, management and analysis solutions, he wanted answers that matched the school district's high-performance philosophy. "We had been collecting and using massive amounts of student performance data each year, but we did not have the benefit of a centralized, standardized data collection and analysis system," says Vomastek. "We could, however, see the many advantages in achieving real-time assessment and student performance information to support continual curriculum development and improvement."

Setting Objectives

According to Vomastek, Portage Public Schools has taken an integrated, long-term view in planning and implementing its new strategic curriculum and assessment programs. The district's investment in technology, related support services, personnel and professional development is critical in preparing to meet the accountability and reporting requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act and the Michigan State Board of Education's Education YES! accreditation system.

The district's objectives included having all 14 of its schools fully participate in electronic grade and attendance reporting by the end of last year, as well as introducing the opportunity for students and parents to monitor grades via the Internet. Further, the district was very clear about its data collection goals:

  • Achieve efficiency in collecting assessment data necessary to relate student grades to the district's standards and benchmarks.
  • Develop efficient methods to help faculty and staff in collecting data.
  • Add computing power to the district's analysis of individual and group achievement.

Consequently, Portage Public Schools issued a formal "Request for Proposal." Vomastek was firm on the requirement for a non-proprietary data format. "We did a tremendous amount of background research and analysis," says Vomastek. "When data is in a proprietary format it can hurt a district in the long run, so open architecture was absolutely critical to us."

Making a 'Future-Proof' Decision

Portage Public Schools chose the Pinnacle Plus District Data Manager (DDM) solution from Excelsior Software Inc. In spring 2001, the district deployed Pinnacle Plus and Excelsior's Gradebook2 to collect and analyze student performance data. In addition, the district continues to use a student information system provided by the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency (KRESA). Based on Microsoft Visual FoxPro, this system supports reporting required by Michigan as well. But, the district sought to improve the system's attendance, grading and reporting functionality. Portage Public Schools also sought to enhance its ability to aggregate student data for longitudinal querying and analysis.

In choosing Pinnacle Plus, Vomastek was confident that the new system would integrate well with the established KRESA system. "The Pinnacle Plus system's data source is open in a standard SQL Server, which provides us with access through both Crystal Reports and Access," he says. The district operates with a 100 MB fiber backbone, enabling Vomastek to manage the Pinnacle Plus system centrally with three servers:

  • One server runs in "Terminal Server" mode to support each school's Pinnacle services;
  • A second server manages teachers' gradebook directories; and
  • The third server supports the Pinnacle Plus DDM SQL database application, which automatically collects and aggregates each school's data for multiyear longitudinal analysis and reporting.

Phasing the Rollout

By introducing the Pinnacle Plus system into the district, Vomastek developed a phased rollout program. Half of the district's schools began using the system during the second semester of the 2000-2001 school year, and the other half began during the following semester. Before the rollout, there were about 100 teachers using individual gradebook applications. And as expected, these educators were hesitant about switching to Gradebook2. "The program offers a high degree of customization and flexibility," says Vomastek. "As a result, the educators' report formats could be replicated, making the transition much easier for all parties involved."

Once Gradebook2 was launched, Portage Public Schools electronically transferred its standards and benchmarks in each core curriculum area to the teachers' Gradebook2 desktop application. This gave teachers the ability to enter standards-based assessment data to be warehoused and analyzed by the newly installed Pinnacle Plus DDM system. In addition, the district was well on its way to meeting its goal of streamlining data entry, as well as increasing the information and reporting power of the data gathered.

Lower TCO

Vomastek factored training and technical support into the district's system choice as well. "Our experience with Excelsior has been a positive one in every sense. They did a great job of creating a suite of applications that serve each type of user. ... There are also different tools for different users, and now our curriculum specialists are using objective reports," says Vomastek. "The benefit for us is that we can reach our goals and implement the system with less training for each specialized group, which has actually helped us lower our total cost of ownership."

During the rollout, the district's teachers received three hours of Gradebook2 training. Subsequent in-service programs then gave a majority of teachers an average of four to six hours of additional software training. In addition, the district continues to provide ongoing professional development in standards-based assessment.

Results Tell the Story

As part of the system rollout, Portage Public Schools has also launched the Pinnacle Plus Parent Internet Viewer, which, according to Vomastek, has been enthusiastically adopted by both students and families. "We're supporting thousands of queries and that's just what we want," he says. "Students and parents are using this real-time information to take ownership of student achievement."

At the same time, Portage Public Schools continues to train its staff to use more of the system's functions, including the electronic report card capability, which district officials expect will save significantly in printing, mailing and handling costs. In addition, the district is extending the number of subject areas in which standards-based assessment will be used, and is continuing the process of incorporating more of its core subject benchmarks. On the reporting front, the district now uses Pinnacle Plus to extract attendance and other data for Michigan's "Successful Completion of Classes" credits program and the state's new funding-related school "report card" requirements.

"Our vision was to find and implement a true, enterprise-wide grade control and reporting system with one comprehensive software solution," says Vomastek. "Our ability to extract data from Pinnacle system's open source DDM database represents a huge time savings for our staff. We could not accomplish this with the static reporting capabilities of a canned data-mining tool. Excelsior's service and support have been a true asset, and together we're working on the next generation of functions Portage Public Schools will need. We've made a 'future-proof' decision, and our students are the true beneficiaries over the long term."

Visit Portage Public Schools online at www.portageps.org.

Contact Information
Excelsior Software
Greeley, CO
(800) 473-4572

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.