Howard schools eye new data warehouse

The Howard County Public School System is investing in a new data warehouse for student information, and school officials think it will garner attention from the business community.

Justin Benedict, director of data management for the school system, said he expected anywhere from 20 to 30 businesses to put in a bid for the project after a request for proposal was issued in January. It's big business, too. Superintendent Renee Foose has put $1 million in her proposed $742 million operating budget request as a first-year lease on the project, which will eventually cost $6 million, according to the budget.

That money will go toward the new data warehouse and a new student information system. It has been seven years since the school district last transitioned to a new system, Aspen. In the world of technology, Benedict said, seven years is a long time, especially in the case of Aspen, which has not gone through a major upgrade in that time.

The system does have a data warehouse, Benedict said, but it's time for something new.

"The current data systems do not provide adequate depth to support the strategic plan," he said, citing the work of several audits from IMPAQ International, the Harvard Strategic Data Project and Pearson. "[Those audits] revealed that we need a more robust data housing environment."

At a report to the Board of Education on Jan. 23, Benedict said that if a school administrator needs detailed student information to make a decision, he or she has to make a request to Benedict's department. Then Benedict and his "limited" staff have to go through "several disparate systems" to pull data, run quality checks and hand over the information to the administrator. Depending on the queue of requests the department fields from across and outside the district, getting that information is a longer process than it should be, Benedict said.

"The point is, with the technology out there, this could happen at literally the same second someone makes the request," he said.

Additionally, Benedict said, the current data warehouse isn't as large or as customized as school officials would like. When it comes to Aspen and the Family Portal, the online hub parents go to access students' grade, more issues exist.

"There's not a single point of entry for [teachers'] data needs," he said. "We couldn't customize the system, and it has limitations. Even today, it has limited functionality."

The district's future portal, Benedict said, should be a "one-stop shop" for teachers that is student- and parent-friendly, have an "intuitive interface" and include multi-language options and a mobile app. The warehouse and student information system need to be more functional and secure, he said.

Board member Ann De Lacy asked if the data warehouse could be used across the school system in areas other than student academics. Not yet, Benedict said, but eventually the data warehouse could house human resources and payroll data as well.

Board member Cindy Vaillancourt asked if the school system was looking to have any fail-safes in place, "in the event that there is a malfunction or a problem, when the whole system is depending on a single program." Like "having your eggs in one basket," Sandra French said.

Benedict said a need for a disaster-recovery application was included in the request for proposal.

In coming weeks, he and his staff will go through proposals to whittle down the proposals, and the finalists will deliver presentations to central office staff. A contract will be awarded in April, and from April to December, the school system will convert its data from one warehouse to the next. Once the new system is live, the old system will become inactive, Benedict said, but board member Janet Siddiqui suggested the old system stay up in a "read-only" format during the transition.

Teachers and administrators will go through system training next fall and winter, and a pilot student information system will run in some schools in February 2015, with a full roll-out the following month. Benedict assured board members that parent training also will be addressed.

"This is an aggressive timeline," Board Chairwoman Ellen Giles said. "It's very exciting. There are benefits here for every single level of the system to improve our operations and services."

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