Weast pulls plug on computer system

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Weast Pulls the Plug On Computer System

By Brigid Schulte Washington Post Staff Writer Wednesday, April 5, 2000; Page B07

Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast has decided to unplug the heralded $4 million computer system that was intended to usher the schools into the 21st century and instead crashed and burned last fall.

Weast said he will take the high-tech Student Information System offline for a year and return to the 25-year-old system while computer programmers iron out the bugs that have continued to plague school counselors, registrars, attendance secretaries and other staff members throughout the year.

"It doesn't work," Weast said. "It hasn't worked. We were hearing all kinds of horror stories."

In the fall, hundreds of students were left stranded in hallways and waiting around guidance counselors' offices because the system simply could not register 131,000 students for classes. Computers froze. Schedules printed out at schools miles away. Weird error messages kept popping up. Registrars worked hours of overtime.

In one of his first actions as new superintendent, Weast fired the man responsible for bringing the new system online.

Since then, some attendance secretaries have reverted to taking roll with pencil and paper because the system took forever to boot up or would crash. Transcripts have been botched. When the system tried to issue report cards, more than 10,000 had errors. About 2,000 had missing grades or credits.

"We had difficulty doing interim student reports. Information would be loaded in by teachers and then lost," said Wayne Whigham, principal of Seneca Valley High School. "A big problem at the high school level was when credits didn't come back accurately. That made it difficult for seniors to show colleges what they had taken. That was a real problem. Everyone was frustrated."

Linna Barnes, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, said concern about errors on college transcripts is uppermost in many parents' minds, "because they are so critical to a child's future."

Because of the problems, report cards for high school students will not be issued before Spring Break, as is customary. Instead, county staff members will spend that week checking whether the report cards are accurate, then will issue them April 26.

The new computer system was to have been one of the first of its kind in any school system: a giant warehouse of information that would allow principals, teachers, even parents, to surf the data and ask the kinds of questions about who is succeeding, where and why, that are virtually impossible to do now.

"Some of the big questions we're trying to find answers to normally take a committee as much as 18 months to come up with," Weast said.

If it worked.

When the system crashed last fall, computer programmers with Marconi Systems Technology Inc. and software designer Administrative Assistants Ltd. chalked it up to a culture clash. Any system going online is bound to have glitches, they said. Montgomery County schools were overreacting a bit.

But Weast said it was foolhardy to power up a brand-new system without first testing it, without much staff training and with old and slow computers six months before the dreaded Y2K glitch was to have eaten all computer systems.

In January, when even the old system survived the change to the year 2000, Weast called in a panel of outside technology experts. They advised using the old system next year and running the new computer system parallel to it to work out the problems.

"It's going to take a Herculean effort," Weast said.


-- - (x@xxx.com), April 05, 2000

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