Spotlight

High-Calibre Support to Remote Corners

by Twyla G. Barnes

While smaller, rural schools are the backbone of the educational service district I oversee in the southwest corner of Washington state, the agency helps districts of all sizes maximize resources, save money and operate more efficiently.

One prime example of innovation and response is a landmark experiment, launched more than 35 years ago by the state’s nine service districts, to create ways for districts to share in the skyrocketing costs of developing and implementing technology and providing centralized support. The districts needed help managing the state’s required reporting of school finance, student records and education personnel but couldn’t afford expensive software and hardware or staffing to do so.

The state’s nine educational service districts created the Washington School Information Processing Cooperative, which serves 280 of the state’s 296 school districts – equivalent to operating an information system for the sixth largest school district in the country.

Remote Support
Our service district operates one of the state’s seven regional data centers that have been set up as hubs for management and deployment of the software provided by the cooperative. Small and large districts each pay the same per-student annual fee and receive high-calibre administrative software and support. Such extensive software would not be affordable to small rural districts otherwise.

Our educational service district houses the Southwest Washington Regional Data Center, which serves 35 districts. The service district hires coordinators to support the fiscal, human resources and student records functions for the districts. They work closely with member districts to train staff, serve as liaisons to the cooperative and provide troubleshooting and onsite support.

Dale Palmer, superintendent in White Salmon Valley School District, located in a remote area in the Columbia River Gorge, believes the cooperative provides his rural system with “the technical level of support needed for very sophisticated operations. As a small district with fewer than 1,200 FTE, the arrangement with ESD 112 allows us to have a voice at the state level in which the needs of the smaller districts can be expressed.”

He says his district has access to highly skilled, knowledgeable technical staff who don’t normally land in small communities as well as the capacity for group purchases of hardware at greatly discounted levels. “We would not be able to support technology costs, staffing and resources if we were not members,” Palmer says.

NCLB Reporting
With increasing demands and reporting requirements for NCLB, districts in the cooperative especially appreciate the built-in software capabilities, which facilitate the state-mandated data gathering at no additional cost. Otherwise, these small rural districts would be forced to develop multiple data collection systems, electronically or manually, to fulfill student information reporting requirements.

Among its many components, the cooperative helps districts to track and report student attendance information, grade point averages, demographics and entry/withdrawal dates. In addition, it tracks migrant, socioeconomic, gifted and talented, Title 1 and special education status. These features replace much of the supplemental tracking districts had to do in the past, which smaller districts often found cumbersome.

Through a cooperative arrangement, an educational service district can bring significant benefits to small districts, including these:

  • Purchasing and licensing computer software. The service agency charges a service fee that grants the school districts access to top-tier software that would not be affordable otherwise.
  • State reporting requirements. By pooling resources through the service district, the school district receives data reports designed, developed and maintained at a significantly lower cost than if the district had to do its own programming.
  • Training district staff. Service agency personnel work closely with district staff to provide on-site training on the various student reporting elements required under NCLB (taking attendance, grading, etc.). They regularly teach classes at the service district in addition to offering one-on-one, on-site support. Districts with under 1,000 students would have to expend double what they pay the cooperative. (This ratio goes up even higher as districts drop in size.) Smaller districts would not be able to afford this level of technology to support their student management, payroll, fiscal and personnel processing.

“We get all of this for a fee roughly about half of what we would pay for a similar service if we went out on our own,” said Jim Sutton, superintendent of the 1,020-student Kalama, Wash., district. “From processing and printing paychecks to ordering student labels to submitting financial reports, this service is invaluable.”

Twyla Barnes is president of the Washington School Information Processing Cooperative Board and superintendent of Educational Service District 112, 2500 N.E. 65th Ave., Vancouver, WA 98661. E-mail: twyla.barnes@esd112.org