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Originally published Thursday, September 5, 2013 at 8:25 PM

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No strike, but Seattle schools struggling with new software

A new software program is causing headaches for many Seattle schools and families

Seattle Times education reporter

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The SNAFU is no surprise. IT at SPS has long been a backwater of inadequate funding... MORE
So the problem, as usual, is clearly the teachers/counselors who didn't have enough... MORE
I guess I'm curious about a software package that can't handle 47,000 students. ... MORE

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The start of the school year in Seattle may not have been disrupted by a teachers strike, but the introduction of a new software program is causing problems for many students and their families.

Some students aren’t listed as enrolled in schools they attended last year. Schedules for high-school and middle-school students have more problems than usual. Parents reportedly have been lining up at the district’s headquarters, trying to get answers, and school counselors and secretaries have been working very late to make fixes.

At Ingraham High, the counseling office’s phone line has a recorded message saying it is “experiencing extremely high call volumes” and urging students to leave just one voice mail or email, not multiple ones.

The source of all the problems isn’t yet clear, but Susan Wright, the district’s chief information officer, said none is directly related to the software, a new program that houses information about where students attend schools, their grades, attendance record and more.

Instead, she said, they stem from delays in putting the new software in place, which left staff little time to practice using it and not enough time to complete the scheduling work they usually do before school starts.

Wright said she’s still not clear about why some students were dropped from enrollment lists at their schools, but that wasn’t a software problem either. The central office has advised principals to keep all students who show up at their buildings until records can be straightened out.

The district installed the new software because the old program didn’t last as long as technology staff had hoped. Staff originally thought they could replace it in fall 2014, Wright said, but that was before it crashed repeatedly during the past school year.

“We weren’t even sure it was going to make it to the end of the last school year,” Wright said.

One problem is that the company that created the old program was purchased by another firm, so maintenance support was no longer available. The district’s increasing enrollment also strained the old software’s capacity.

Enrollment and scheduling problems always arise at the beginning of a school year but this year’s software problems, along with continued school overcrowding, have added to the usual pain.

District staff started the conversion six months ago, a process that Wright said usually takes at least a year and a half. The district’s technology staff has been working day and night for about a month, she said, and weekends for several months.

The delays in getting the new system working are why the district was late in letting many families know where students stood on school waiting lists. The lists are not kept in the new software, Wright said, but they are so closely linked that delays in one affect the other.

It would not be possible to convert from one system to another in the middle of a school year, Wright said, because it takes more than a weekend to transfer data, and it would be even more problematic to try to use two systems at once.

Despite the problems, Wright said the transition is going better than she thought it would.

“I’m a little bit in shock that things are working as well as they are at the moment,” she said.

In a message to parents Thursday, Superintendent José Banda said district staff continue to work around the clock to make fixes.

The district also has set up a special email — StartOfSchool@SeattleSchools.org — where parents can send questions, and the district promises to respond to them promptly.

The good news, Wright said, is that once the initial problems are solved, the new system will be an improvement.

For the first time, all information about students will be in one system. Before, most of it was in the old system, plus two other programs.

With the new software, teachers will be able to enter final semester grades once, not twice. That also means parents will get information quicker.

“It will get better,” Wright said. “We’re very sorry that we couldn’t have smoothed it out more.”

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @LShawST

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