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Challenges in California Charter School State Reporting

By: David K. Meyers aka “the Marsman”

I wrote this piece about two years ago (January 2015) and find what I said then is still relevant and decided to republish here on my blog.

It’s just a little after nine in the morning, and I am sitting here waiting for CALPADS to come back online with yet another fix for California’s student and school information reporting system.  After working near non-stop since mid-December on required state reporting for the charter schools whom I assist in maintaining their SIS and report preparation, I cannot imagine how many schools get this job done without an expert working with a perfectly maintained student information system.  Thus, some observations, questions and a comment or two come to mind.

Observation One:  The sheer volume and complexity of required reporting and of greater concern, the importance of getting all reports done accurately and submitted on time surprises many new charter school administrators.  In many cases with small charter school organizations, I’ve noticed that a number of school administrators tend to be former principals from regular school districts with little or no experience with directly dealing with many of the reporting requirements.  After all, as a principal in a regular school district, some mysterious department down in dimly lit and deep crevices of the district office probably did all this reporting stuff for you… you never had to deal with it.

Well, you are not in Kansas anymore Dorothy.  If you are the administrator of your independently funded charter school, CDE demands that you and your school adhere to the same school reporting requirements and standards as a full-blown school district.  My question is do you have a handle on all your reporting requirements and the correct procedures for your schools?

If you cannot absolutely say yes, you need to sit down and start making a list and not checking it twice, but four, five or more times to insure you got every possible required report.  Your list should not only contain what needs to be done and when, it also needs to be very specific in terms of the who and where these report go, and most important, how does the entire process work to get them there.  I am going to list some of the general areas for California administrators to start this reporting list:

  1. Attendance – including those pesky ADA reports that gets you paid.
  2. CALPADS with it is myriad of data reporting requirements.
  3. SARC: Hmmm… the law says this document has to post by February 1.
  4. CBEDS
  5. Class Size Reduction
  6. US Civil Rights
  7. National School Lunch Program

There are other required reports for sure, and here is the catch, your local and county districts may have their own reporting procedures for one or all of these reports, along with their own set of additional data reporting requirements.  If you do not know exactly who, what, when, where, why and the how related to all of your reporting requirements, you will either find out now, or possibly find yourself later without a school.  Let’s try not to be a one hit wonder.

Observation Two:  There are some charter schools that just do the one’s that are important, or wait until they get a threatening phone call or ransom note before they comply with one they don’t consider high priority.  This is akin to waiting for a call from the IRS before you file your taxes… not a good idea.  While it may be true that some of these reports get more of your attention because they have a direct fiscal impact, the others that may not are in most cases required by law that you agreed to comply with when granted your charter. You did agree to comply with all local, state and federal laws… right?

My favorite example is SARC.  Get a list of California Charters from the CDE website and then look up their current SARC.  I promise there are enough schools missing SARC postings to raise an eyebrow.  This School Accountability Report Card is a report that seemingly does not have any real consequences beyond being on the “Bad-Boy” list.  However, if you do not post SARC on time, to my understanding, you’re not complying with the federal law regarding SARC.

Now in real life, as long as everyone is playing well together, being on the “Bad-Boy” list a few times may not seem like a big deal.  However, the first time someone wants to throw you out of the sandbox, they will cite every instance your school broke the law, by not filing required reports on time, even something as seemingly insignificant as your SARC. So tell me, is your school listed as “Missing SARC” or do you have a letter of non-compliance (or two) from the state, county and/or local superintendant hidden in the back of your desk drawer?

Observation Three:  Personally, I cannot see how anyone can efficiently get all these different reports accurately prepared without a properly configured and maintained SIS.  You probably show that little program to everyone in your demonstration of how high tech your school is.  They have brand names like PowerSchool, Aeries, Infinite Campus, ESchools Plus, and a gazillion others. However,  many are so poorly maintained they are near unusable for anything that requires accuracy.  In reality, it “might” be used to record daily attendance that one of your staff somehow strips out the data and then performs a secret voodoo ritual to prepare your required attendance reporting… maybe.

Last school year, I attended training for LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) charters aimed at demonstrating how to prepare the attendance reports LAUSD requires.  While talking with attendees, I do not recall a single individual who said their school used their SIS for preparing these reports.

One school with whom I once consulted had a full-time staff person who spent every hour, everyday manually working on just attendance reporting.  She had a series of linked spreadsheets that could have been used to conduct an intricate tour of the solar system and it still had gross errors.  I accurately do the same type reports (for other schools) from their SIS in about an hour each month.

Now before I go into a little more detail, I am not going to endorse any of the hundreds, if not thousands of specific SIS systems available.  I am also going to make a blanket statement that not one of these off the shelf SIS systems will perfectly prepare every report you are required to file in the specific manner for your school.  In fact, all will fall short of functioning anything close to Captain Kirk’s starship computer.

The good news is that if you are using one of the better SIS systems, chances are your system is capable of doing all the “heavy” work needed to do most if not all of your required report preparation.  The exception is if your school is doing something “different” such as independent study, you might want to find an SIS system specifically designed to handle that type of curriculum service.

The key to a fully usable SIS is that it must be correctly set-up for your specific school and kept that way.  Most important is the timely and accurate entry of routine information into the SIS.  I once upon a time saw a system that the administrator complained did not generate any attendance reports.  Well, there was not an attendance entry for even one student!  Without being too self-serving, I am going to suggest some ways to make your SIS work for you:

  • Don’t start shopping for a new SIS just because someone(s) tells you the system does not work, or produces erroneous reporting data.  I have found that most times, the problems with an SIS are not due to systemic SIS issues, but more likely one of the following three end-user problems:
  1. The overall SIS set-up and configuration are not correct for the way your school operates.
  2. The information entered by your staff is either inaccurate or is not up to date due to insufficient training or poor staff discipline.
  3. The person attempting to generate a specific report does not understand the prerequisites/procedure, or a direct/built-in report procedure does not exist and requires more knowledge to export and then generate the correct report using external processes.

It is possible that a systemic SIS issue results in the inability to produce a specific accurate report, however, the technical support at the better SIS vendors are probably aware of the issue and have some kind of work around for critical systemic reporting problems.  I would say that the case for shopping for another SIS vendor is justified only if the current SIS is completely wrong for your school’s mission, such as the independent study program I previously mentioned.

In reality, each SIS is going to do some things better, and some things worse.  I like to equate the relationship of a given school to their SIS in terms of a marriage.  Obviously, like a marriage, a wise choice at the beginning gives you a better chance of having a good relationship over the long haul.  But when we start talking divorce and remarriage, the lyrics to a song from the seventies start ringing in my head, “… it’s cheaper to keep her!”

If you must change SIS vendors, be prepared to pay for initial acquisition cost, training, data migration cost, and cost to change your school procedures to match the SIS, as well as a range of surprise issues that may involve more money.  Plus, you could still end up paying to maintain two systems just to preserve access to your historic data.  While the new system may solve one set of problems, it will come with its own set of issues that may be just as annoying as the system you dumped.  Hence, you find your new spouse snores loud enough to wake the neighborhood.

  • To get full functionality from your SIS in a manner you can trust requires that you have access to someone either on staff or on call that thoroughly understands both the SIS system and the way your specific school operates.  Keep in mind that the larger and more popular SIS systems are really scaled for school districts that have the resources to have one or more highly skilled people on staff to set and maintain their district’s SIS.

Typically, this is not your IT person who takes care of your software, computers, network and such.  It is also not the “science teacher” (or whoever) you delegate to make those pretty spreadsheets and graphs you show at board meetings, nor the person who manages your website.

These SIS systems are highly complex “relational” data systems, built to adjust and serve your school’s operation only if kept properly set exactly the way your school operate.  Even then, at some point you are going to find the file you need to export and then upload to the state or other reporting agency requires some external adjustment or additional processing by a person with the skill set needed to do it correctly… that’s just the way life is.

Be very careful in how you implement a change recommended by an SIS support technician to solve a specific issue.  In many cases, their goal will be how to solve the specific problem you described when you made the call, but the technician may not always be 100% cognizant of how a change to solve your immediate issue may affect your SIS system’s overall operation.

One should address SIS related issues through one individual, the expert you have delegated as your “go to” SIS administrator who views your SIS and school in its entirety.  Your SIS system security should be tightly set so only that SIS administrator has the ability to make system setting/configuration changes.  You’d be surprised of the number of charter schools who have granted full administrative privileges to nearly everyone on the staff.  Keep all your user security tight.

  • Make sure your school procedures include full documentation associated with your critical reporting data; that is a signed and dated hardcopy source document, such as weekly attendance sheets signed/dated by the responsible teacher.  Make sure you keep those signed source documents up to date with any subsequent changes fully explained, also signed, and dated by the authorized person who made the change.

Be sure the latest information on the source document matches the SIS system entries, and then have a method that regularly checks what is in your SIS against the source documents to spot potential errors.  Make sure the person who is responsible for those records understands the system well enough to fully explain and demonstrate to an outside source how the official report submitted traces back to what is in the source documents.

  • Before you officially sign and/or certify any official submission, be sure you personally look at the data to be sure it is correct.  You are the person held accountable.  If the data looks wrong, it probably is, but you must really look at the information.  Question in depth the person who prepared the data until you are satisfied it is correct.  Have each responsible staff person who is connected to the information you are about to submit check and sign that they concur with what you are about to certify or sign.  If you manage the widget company, you do not have to know every detail in building the widget, but you must know enough to oversee the correct widget construction.

For instance, if you are doing CALPADS certification, print the specific lists before you certify, such as the SPED (special education) student list and have the SPED teacher verify those are indeed the SPED students.  If you are doing National School Lunch Program (NSLP) reporting, have your staff pull your NSLP applications and match the students against the report.  In other words, check your submissions to be sure it is accurate.  If it is not, do not sign and/or certify.  Find out why there is a problem.  Allow enough time to be sure you can do this stuff right and get it filed and certified on time.

Now, with all the cautions, warnings, and “be sure to…” and “… you need to…” admonitions, it might seem as though you’d be better off just hiring a couple of more people and doing this all by hand.  However, the likelihood of generating accurate reporting information will be greatly enhanced using a properly set and maintained SIS at a small fraction of the cost of several staff people doing the same task by hand, and re-entering the same information repeatedly.  Every time someone re-enters data by hand, the probability of a data entry error increases.  Your goal is to accurately enter information once to reduce that probability.

Observation Four:  If you have accurate and complete data in your properly set and maintained SIS, “theoretically” you should be able to mouse click the correct data extract report and upload to the state or other agency and you’re finished.  However,  theory does not always mimic the real world, so be prepared to occasionally tweak an extract file here and there to match the expected formatting, or to come up with a custom data extraction report to get the specific information you may need for an odd report, especially if it is a local request.

The bigger issues involve the systems to which you send the data.  You will need to be familiar with a number of other systems when you prepare and send your data.  Some are simple, and some work extremely well.  I love the new SARC preparation app at the CDE website.

I earlier mentioned my experiences with CALPADS during the week I wrote this document.  CALPADS is a relatively new, big, complex and evolving data reporting and information system, that actually works fairly well for where it is in its current implementation.  However, they are having growing pangs that are exposing some systemic issues.

In a very small school setting, say ten to twenty students in a single teacher one-room schoolhouse, you could use the manual entry functions to enter your school’s CALPADS submissions.  In real life, you are going to find that preparing the information from your SIS and uploading is the only efficient way to maintain accurate CALPADS reporting.  Thus, read the CALPADS documentation and don’t hesitate to use their excellent technical support.  That system will get better.

Observation Five:  It seems that charter schools are always doing their required reporting in crisis mode. My first goal when I work with a charter is to get them out of crisis mode and into having a plan to get their reports accurately filed on time.  Then you can task your staff to spend more time working on how to get your kids to school everyday and effectively teach instead of dealing with all these annoying reports at the last minute.

I am writing this little essay during the last week in February. The time to start planning for the upcoming school year is right now, starting with your academic calendar, the courses you offer and the relationship to California standard course associations.  Right now is the time to plan your 2014-15 teacher assignments to best satisfy your NCLB course requirements.  Do your student applications gather enough information to get everything you need to have a complete student profile?  Plan how you capture information from the start.  You’ll get more accurate funding and you’ll avoid last minute questions.

Conclusion:  I’ve written about 3000 words to make one simple point:  If you enter complete and accurate information into one of the better SIS systems, keep the information up to date, and keep your SIS with the correct set-up for your school, you can efficiently prepare accurate required reports in a cost effective manner.  If you hire expert SIS help such as someone like me, keep in mind that you and your staff must still enter and maintain complete, current and accurate information about the school, staff and of course your students for you to have any hope of report accuracy.  Ultimately, you are responsible for the accuracy of any official information you submit and certify as correct. Did I mention your SIS as well as some of these reporting systems might actually help you teach your students?  Another discussion… yes, we’re having fun.