Steve Knox thought the Idaho Student Information Management System was a sure deal.
The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation pledged $35 million for startup costs and Gov. Dirk Kempthorne signed a bill requiring all of Idaho’s schools to participate in the program.
Knox, the technology coordinator for the Kellogg School District, volunteered Kellogg to be one of three districts in the state to pilot the so-called ISIMS initiative.
Now the districts chosen to pilot the program have been left in a lurch. This week, the Albertson Foundation announced that ISIMS was costing more than expected and decided to put the project indefinitely on hold.
“Did I want to jump in the water or suffer inching myself in?” Knox said earlier this year. “I decided it would be better to be one of the first ones in.”
The ISIMS initiative promised to make it easier for schools to log attendance and record grades. The statewide network would link schools to one another so they could share information about students and easily report test scores and other information required under the No Child Left Behind federal education law.
From the start, Kellogg had a hard time with ISIMS. The small Silver Valley district’s hodgepodge network and aging computers weren’t able to handle the sophisticated software, so Kellogg had to upgrade. They pulled money from an already tight school budget and relied on grants to help cover the cost
“We’ve got a huge, huge, huge amount of time and energy invested in learning the software and passing that information down to the teachers and getting them to accept it,” Knox said. “We spent weeks and weeks with secretaries and other people down in Boise getting trained.”
Teachers were starting to get a handle on the new system and Knox said he “was beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It was beginning to be a workable project. We were moving forward.”
Now, Kellogg is back to square one. Or worse.
Because the district still needs to meet the reporting requirements under No Child Left Behind, some kind of software will be needed to replace ISIMS, which is too costly for the district to maintain. Knox said the district will likely go back to the software it previously used. Because the ISIMS software was run off a server in Boise, the district had dedicated its own local servers to other uses.
To go back to using its old software, Knox said the district will have to purchase more servers. The district also will have to find a way to report the additional information No Child Left Behind requires. The old software doesn’t have some of those capabilities.
Knox said he estimates the change will cost the district “many thousands of dollars.” The district also will have to pay for upkeep and maintenance that would have been funded through ISIMS.
State Superintendent of Schools Marilyn Howard sent an e-mail to district superintendents after the Albertson Foundation announced that it was withdrawing support for ISIMS.
She said the “full vision of ISIMS appears to be beyond the state of Idaho’s grasp.” Even without Albertson’s support, Howard said the project must continue because of the federal reporting requirements. Howard said she will ask the Legislature for funding to support a bare-bones system.
According to a press release from the foundation, a consultant it hired estimated expenses for ISIMS to reach as high as $180 million over the next five years. The Albertson Foundation said it will continue to work with the three pilot districts – and 26 others that recently began the process – to make sure each has “a useful student information system.”
Idaho’s school districts were going to sign on to the ISIMS project in phases. The Post Falls School District had opted to be in one of the final groups of schools to convert to ISIMS.
Superintendent Jerry Keane said the district had adopted some software shortly before the ISIMS initiative was announced and had already spent time and money to train employees. By waiting, Keane said the district hoped to get its money’s worth out of the investment it had made.
He said he’d heard from other schools that there were some definite problems with ISIMS that foreshadowed this week’s announcement.
“I’m not totally surprised,” Keane said. “Just based on the magnitude of the project and the difficulty in trying to cross-reference different functions within software programs, it seemed like very complex work.”
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