Three Steps to Choosing an Administrative System

The installation of a new student information system (SIS) in over 200 schools in Region 10 of Texas has been going smoothly thanks to the process used to select the software. "The selection process was key," concurs Bruce Curran, director of the Computer Services Department at the Region 10 Service Center. "The potential for disruption with any new, complex system is huge and only by following a proven process and taking the necessary time to build consensus has Region 10 been able to make it work." There are three key components in the selection process that Curran recommends to any school or district looking for a student information system. "First, ensure everyone involved in the evaluation process has a good understanding and definition of the problem that needs to be solved. Second, institute a thorough and objective search and, finally, make sure the people who will actually use the software are involved in the selection process." After many months of evaluation, Region 10 signed a contract for Win School (previously named CSL Thesis), a Windows-based SIS published by Chancery Software, of Vancouver, B.C. Installed in over 1,000 sites worldwide, Win School includes student demographics, discipline, scheduling, attendance and report card modules. Identify Problem & Solution The first step for Region 10 was to define the problem and draft a set of criteria that would form the basis for an acceptable solution. A committee representing all the schools met to set project guidelines. "It's very important to remain focused on the problem that has to be solved and not get sidetracked with details," Curran recommends. He suggests that schools determine what is unique about their needs and make sure the vendor supports whatever that is. Schools should determine what is unique about their needs and make sure the vendor supports whatever that is. In the case of Region 10, an acceptable product had to be a graphic-oriented, Windows-based, relational database-driven product with specific reporting, scheduling, and attendance features. Thorough, Objective Search With the guidelines for a solution defined, Region 10 established a Review Committee to search out and evaluate the available SIS software vendors. Their mandate was to narrow the search down to the top two vendors who would then undergo an extensive product review. Once again, each county was represented on the committee by two individuals, but this time they were principals and technical coordinators, who could better evaluate a product from the school-level perspective. To ensure a thorough and objective search, the Review Committee sent a four-page requirements document to every vendor that could be identified in the SIS field. This document was not a detailed RFP but rather an overview highlighting the key features required by Region 10. "We didn't want to fall into the trap of self-selecting a solution by reviewing only products we thought could do the job for us. We wanted an objective search," explains Curran, "If we had sent out a huge RFP some vendors may not have bothered to invest all the work required to respond." Region 10 sent packages to 12 vendors and received eight responses. Of these the committee selected six products for an initial review and allowed each vendor a half-day presentation to demonstrate the capabilities of their SIS product. "In any presentation ensure vendors demonstrate the features you've listed in your requirements document, not just what is flashy about their software. Give vendors lots of time and a list of features to demonstrate," urges Curran. Involve the Users After the initial demonstrations the Review Committee had enough information to select two finalists for a more comprehensive evaluation. "The single most important step in selecting something as complex as a student information system is to ensure 'buy-in' from everyone involved in the process, especially the end user," advises Curran. "Installation, conversion, training and support can't go smoothly without a cooperative environment." Every district was permitted to send any number of their staff to day-long demonstration sessions, each attended by over 100 general users, from superintendents to secretaries. At the end of each session their opinions were collected and a final consensus was reached in favor of Win School. "Everyone in Region 10 deserves credit for putting in the time needed to make this work." Curran also gives credit to Chancery Software for being receptive to meeting Region 10's requirements for training, support, and a flexible pricing and payment structure.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.