New information system in works for Pittsburgh schools

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School districts can go a decade or more without having to change the costly systems that keep track of student attendance, grades and scheduling.

But Pittsburgh Public Schools is in the midst of changing its system, years ahead of its plans, because the vendor will stop supporting the current system in 2015.

"The student information system is the backbone of the school district," said Peggy Shields, director of instructional technology. "It's always a difficult change because there is so much information tied to that.

"Since we only had it for three to four years, we were still in the process of adjusting to that change and getting used to the way that system manages information," she said.

The district now uses Pinnacle to keep track of attendance and make schedules as well as to connect with parents. Teachers keep their grade books on the system, and parents can access current information about their children's grades.

So far, the district has spent nearly $2.3 million on Pinnacle. The district bought the program and servers, and its annual license is $140,000 a year.

In 2015, the district will begin using eSchoolPLUS from SunGard. This will cost $707,254 for the first three years -- including software, support, licensing, implementation and training -- followed by $120,000 a year for licensing.

The new system is paid for as a service, so the district does not have additional hardware expenses.

Before Pinnacle, the district used SASI for its student information system for about a decade until SASI was no longer supported.

Mark Campbell, chief information officer, said the district already had purchased Pinnacle when he arrived in 2010. Pinnacle now is in its fourth year of being used districtwide, Ms. Shields said.

Pinnacle brought new features, including parent access and a grade book teachers could access from home, not just from school.

In 2013, the district learned Pinnacle wouldn't be supported past June 2015.

"It was after we were at a point where we had just finished implementation," said Mr. Campbell.

While there was a pilot for Pinnacle, this time there won't be. Instead, the new system will be ready to go districtwide in February in time to schedule fall classes.

The district now is in the process of entering data into the system and working with focus groups to get feedback.

Mr. Campbell said a pilot tests only limited functions.

"You won't learn all of the nuances until you have a full-blown system," he said. "We'll have the system ready in February. That will give us several months to fully test all the functionality of the system."

A new system also takes time and energy.

Ms. Shields estimated that teachers who have used an electronic grade book will be able to learn the new one in an hour and a half.

Each school has a student data systems specialist, and she said it could take as much as a week to train each because they need to learn more elements of the system.

With the new product, Ms. Shields said, "I would hope that we would be able to maintain our relationship with them for years, potentially a decade or so, as long as they are improving their products to keep up with the changes that go on."

Education writer Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955.

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