by Tori Hamby

CHARLOTTE – Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials say they fear a massive data shift from the state’s existing student information system to a new program could bring big problems.

The issue?

The timeline the N.C. Department of Public Instruction has given CMS and the state’s other 114 school districts that use N.C. Wise – the state’s current student data information system – is too rushed, they say. Wake County Schools, a large urban school district in the Raleigh area has reported similar worries.

“There’s concerns that DPI has given us a really aggressive timeline,” Jay Parker, CMS head of student applications and Web development, said. “The conversion is supposed to be completed in six months.”

The education technology firm, Pearson Education Systems, bought out N.C. Wise, or the North Carolina Window of Information on Student Education, about two years ago, eventually making the decision to no longer support the product. They replaced it with PowerSchool, their own SIS program with more up-to-date features.

Teachers have used N.C. Wise to track student attendance, grades and academic progress, while parents can track the same information from home. The CMS central office uses school and student data collected by the system to make data-driven decisions in each of the district’s departments.

“We’ve got six years of student data – and its really detailed student data,” Parker said. “There’s everything from daily attendance figures to scores for a test you might have taken four years ago. You have to ensure not only that your data gets moved, but that it doesn’t get corrupted or misaligned.”

There’s also the issue of training the district’s 13,122 school users and 79,280 parent users to use the new system.

The district and other North Carolina school systems underwent a similar process when it transitioned to N.C. Wise six years ago. While the transition might be difficult, Parker said it comes with some neat perks.

“In the past, a lot of our administrators would request data from the central office,” Parker said. “Now they will be able to access it right on their computers.”

The new system, unlike N.C. Wise, is also compatible with iPhones, iPods and Android devices.

DPI mandated the quick timeline because it plans to use an “instruction improvement system” to evaluate teacher effectiveness, Parker said. Students would be able to evaluate teachers using PowerSchool – a capability that N.C. Wise doesn’t support – for the evaluation system to begin during 2013-14 school year.

The conversion also comes with a hefty price tag that Parker told school board members earlier this month could reach $1 million after the district pays to train its staff and brings in experts to help with the transition.

That figure could rise if CMS needs to update its servers or equipment to accommodate PowerSchool, Parker added. The state, he said, rebuffed a CMS request to help pay for the conversion or extend the timeline to create an extended transition.

CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison told the Board of Education in November that the district has no choice but to scrape together money from its budget to fund a smooth conversion. An underfunded transition could have drastic consequences for teachers and administrators as they start the 2013-14 school year.

“We can’t afford not to,” he said. “This will directly impact how we start next year.”

South Carolina made a similar switch, but gave each of its school districts – which used their own individual information systems – about 2 1/2 years to switch to PowerSchool. All North Carolina districts have used a uniform statewide system for six years, which should cut down on transition time.

Course scheduling for middle and high school students will be affected even if all goes as planned. Students will have to decide what classes they will take next year by May 1, before many students have received course placement exam results.

In a worst-case scenario, CMS could lose key student information, such as End-of-Grade and End-of-Course test scores from years past, transcripts sent to prospective colleges and universities, as well as scholarship providers, and credits needed for graduation.

“It’s the ‘big bang theory; we’re all going live by July 1,” Parker said. “You have to have a good roadmap and a project plan in place.”