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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Moving from manual systems to automation in six weeks: How we are doing it!



This is familiar. When a blogger's site goes quiet, they are either gone on vacation or they are so busy they cannot breathe.

This week, I've been the latter. I've kept a pen and paper handy as I noted things I'd like to share with you.

In addition to installing my amazing new computer lab, we've also been training administration and staff on our new PowerSchool system.

Moving from manual systems to PowerSchool has gone relatively smoothly largely because of the amazing leadership from administration.

They told the teachers,


"Listen, I'm not very good with a computer and I'm learning. It's the right thing to do and certainly you're as good as all of those other teachers who are doing it now."

No bellyaching, just professionals who know they need to do it! Boy, I work in a great school!

Then our administration did something really revolutionary! They attended one whole day of training and learned how to use it themselves!

The trainer was quite impressed and noted that she cannot recall a headmaster ever receiving training. What can I say? They lead by example.

It is amazing that this thing is up and going in less than six weeks (they set up our server the first week of July.) Our guidance counselor was implementation manager and I was technical support. I assisted with converting the data for import but she did the majority of the work. On top of that her baby is due next week!

We actually took attendance on the first day of school without a hitch!

Here are the tips I have for you that we've used to help speed our process and helped it go relatively smoothly:

1) Look at the PROCESSES of what you want to automate and establish phases.

You CANNOT do everything at once. Our process planning (which remains in flux) looks something like this:

Aug 11 - Attendance
Aug 20 - All gradebooks setup and first week of grades entered
Aug 21 - Administration reviews gradebooks to ensure entry is occurring.

We will be implementing lunchroom automation in several months because the automation of attendance and gradebooks is such a big part of what we do.

For web access, we plan on having a test group of parents (probably our Board of Directors) in November/ December. In January we plan on starting with the senior class and moving down as we allow parent and student access to the system. We add in small chunks so we can troubleshoot in small chunks.

In everything we've had:

Administrator Testing--> Small Group Testing --> Phased roll out to end users.

2) Communicate clearly WHAT will happen:

We have procedure flowcharts for everything that has been communicated to all of the teachers.
Administrators presented it (not me, the technical person) and opened up for questions and input from the teachers.

This flow chart includes manual processes that will be used until all auditing is completed for a process and teacher comfort levels are high. (see dotted line)

The chart to the left is an example of what we used for attendance. We had similar flow charts for excused attendance, grading, and report cards.


3) Communicate clearly HOW future changes will happen:


We will reconvene the technology committee that spent all of last year selecting the gradebook after our guidance counselor has her baby. At that time, we will discuss reports the teachers want and changes that they would like to see.

We will also discuss future capabilities of the system and plan for when we think each part can happen with feedback from the teachers.

We invited anyone not already on the committee who was interested to add their name to the list. People don't like feeling left out. Include people.

4) Communicate clearly HOW to get
help and Establish a first line of defense.

We trained most of our "power users" on the day of training with the PowerSchool trainer.

Then, the next day we brought in ALL teachers with me providing the training. Each person from day 1 was given a person and they were designated as "Power Pals." They sat at the computer together with the newbie driving the mouse.

We took two hours to cover school procedures and basic PowerGrade setup. Then, the last hour of training, we dismissed all teachers to go with their PowerPal to make sure they were set up by noon. The goal was to have every teacher set up in PowerGrade and logged in to verify that they were ready to take attendance the next day. I spent my time going from room to room and troubleshooting. I verified that everyone had set a password and had properly secured their system.

First, when a person needs help, they go to their PowerPal to ask a question. We then have a designated person in each building, that is the second line of defense. Finally, they can e-mail or see the two administrative tech support designees, myself and the guidance counselor as their final recourse. We act immediately.

I firmly believe in the importance of partnering power users with users who may be a little less comfortable. This gives the beginners the hand holding and comfort of someone standing over their shoulder without putting an undue burden on one person. The Power Users have a way of filtering the "small" problems and putting only the larger problems on the plate of the system administrators.

Remember this, never tell the teachers your strategy and remember, you can "guess" who the power users might be, but you never know. A "newbie" in your mind will surpass all of the "power users." It will happen, so don't label publicly.

5) Empathize openly with the feelings associated with a conversion.

Feelings are feelings. Empathy must accompany everything you do because change is difficult. People need to know that they will not be crucified if they enter one blank wrong and that someone is there to help. Never take away hope in fact, give hope, empathy and encouragement.

Authoritarian, dogmatic, implementations without understanding the human side are doomed to fail amidst myth and floundering newbies who have nowhere to turn.

At our school, we often say (and truly feel) that we are a family. We all have strengths and weaknesses and those who have a skillset that compliment my weaknesses help me on many things. They do not make me feel bad when I have trouble decorating my room. They help me! Likewise, I help them set up their printer without criticism.

Remember that there is a very vital emotional counterpart of this process. In order to dispel myths and have an open line of communication (see how many bullets above have the word communication in them) you must have a relationship of trust with those you are working with.

6) Remember that this is an administrative decision, not a technological one.

When this decision was made, it was made by administration NOT technical people like me. The teachers recommended. I put my technological stamp of approval on it. The guidance counselor put her "stamp" on it. But administration made the call.

These are administrative processes and administrative support staff will most likely have to perform many of the tasks. Without administrative support, you are doomed to fail. If there is an intense amount of distrust of administration, you will have difficulty implementing unless you as an implementer are trusted by the teachers.

Your desire to automate the process should drive what you do as a school. Otherwise, you just end up with just another system to put stuff into!

7) Clearly communicate expectations.

There will be struggles. There will be set up issues. There will be misunderstandings! Clearly communicate who does what.

For us: Administration sets all permissions. The front office enrolls and de-enrolls students. The guidance counselor schedules and supports the PowerSchool aspects for administration. I, the technical support person, assist in writing reports, ODBC connection to the database (to pull data out into spreadsheets, etc.) and support the teachers on PowerGrade because I am a teacher and am using it.

8) Take ownership


Remember that you are purchasing a piece of software, or in our case we purchased an ASP system (which means they maintain and support our server.) But ultimately, the system is only as good as the data WE enter and the configuration WE set up.

The process of implementation is a PROCESS and often a laborious, mind blowing, exhausting one! You will have to call tech support. You will have misunderstandings that will have to be corrected after things "go live." It is easy to sit back and pass the buck.

Ultimately if you have an implementation that "goes bad" it falls squarely on the shoulders of administration and teachers. They are the ones who look bad when report cards fail to print on time. If you don't have ownership, you will not be pleased with the end result.

In conclusion


It has been a tough process and has taken me away from my blogging and book authoring. Although it has required a great sacrifice on my part, the part of our guidance counselor, administration, and even our teachers who had to give up 5-6 hours of valuable preplanning time, it is going to pay great dividends in making life easier.

When the teachers opened up the gradebook and already had rosters with parent names and phone numbers, squeals of delight filled the classroom! When teachers realized that this would keep running averages, they started to get excited. When elementary teachers realized they could model their grading methodologies after the teachers their children would inherit the next year, they began to really discuss grading methodologies, fairness, and our authentic assessment strategies.

I believe that all of this will free our teachers from the calculators that enslave them and will free them to spend more time teaching. With increased communication with parents and students, the research shows that achievement goes up, so I believe we will see this too. (Although we are extremely high now, we'll get even better.)

I am extremely grateful to our visionary PTO leadership that decided to completely fund this project. This has truly been an example thus far of what hard work, ownership, vision, and leadership can accomplish in a very short time.

I am truly blessed to work in a school that does not put artificial fences around my mind and the mind of the other teachers. Everything we strive to do is "research based" and we look at the predominance of research, not faddish things that come and go. We've been phonics based since the school started and all of our kids read by the end of K5. I could go on.

I want to say that leadership is so very important. I and the guidance counselor could be at another school with the same project and the same teachers and fail miserably if we had weak administration. Strong administrators have great people skills, a vision, and character. I am truly blessed.
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