Imagine if you could log on to every computer in your district. Chances are, you’d find hundreds of different spreadsheets and dozens of third-party applications, if not more. Making matters more complicated, many of these systems have their own databases. All of this leads you to question how confident your employees are with the technology and processes used in your school district.
This was the scenario the leaders at Alcoa City Schools, located south of Knoxville, Tennessee, found themselves in six years ago before implementing their current SIS (Student Information System) & ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) solution. Every program Alcoa used had its own database and a different staff member maintaining it, making it hard to identify and collect reliable data. “There was no common database, no place for data to start, and no place for data to be exported,” explained Lisa Berry, director of technology.
After enduring disorganized data and little to no communication between applications, administrators at Alcoa agreed to invest in an SIS and ERP solution that could serve as a common database and improve the district’s state reporting for funding.
In a decision to empower employees, Alcoa selected Skyward’s School Management System, an Ed-Fi
certified, SIS and ERP solution that helped staff improve their productivity while allowing them to use the third-party applications
they had grown accustomed to. “People don’t realize how dynamic a good SIS and ERP can be to a district’s operations, especially when it comes to third-party processes,” stated Berry. With a rare understanding of teacher and administrator choice along with the power of interoperability in its new SIS and ERP solution, Alcoa cleaned up its data and created a more productive and collaborative culture.
"PEOPLE DON'T REALIZE HOW DYNAMIC A GOOD SIS AND ERP CAN BE TO A DISTRICT'S OPERATIONS, ESPECIALLY WHEN IT COMES TO THIRD-PARTY PROCESSES."
Improving District Communication
That culture took root in the technology department, where Berry and her staff helped Alcoa stay ahead of the technology curve. With a wide variety of roles and applications under their watch, Alcoa’s technology department searched for ways to share their wealth of knowledge with administrators and front office staff. In what turned out to be their most successful idea to date, the technology department decided to create regular lunch and learn meetings with school level personnel.
Taking place once a month, the department began meeting with front office and technology staff who were considered “integrators” for each school. Many of the conversations revolved around tips and tricks on how Alcoa’s staff could maximize technology such as Skyward. “We are a small school system, so everyone has many different roles they fulfill,” explained Berry. “By doing our lunch and learns, our culture has started to change and now people are asking if there are features in Skyward to improve their roles and processes.”
In fact, one of the of the lunch and learns resulted in a replication diagram
which set the standard for how Alcoa now uses third-party applications. Most noticeably, Skyward is located at the center of the diagram, where each third-party process starts. “It’s a great way to visualize the efficiencies Skyward gives us,” explained Berry. “Data is entered once in Skyward and moves outward to our other systems; it’s a large domino effect.”
Setting an Example
Unfortunately, many surrounding districts are lagging behind Alcoa to identify a successful strategy. At a regional meeting, Berry sat in on a presentation about exporting data to third parties and was surprised to learn it was such a pain point for other districts. Alcoa felt quite the opposite. Instead, they were recognized at the state level as a top performing school district for their state reporting and data matches. “Our confidence in our state reporting numbers are through the roof since we started using Skyward,” explained Berry.
That success didn’t happen overnight. Alcoa earned it by committing to Skyward and putting trust in its employee’s technology choices and processes. Whether an employee logs on to Google, e-Funds, or any other third-party application, Alcoa’s technology department wants each system to communicate with Skyward so it doesn’t add to their workload.
“If there are programs out there that are not communicating with Skyward, there is an expectation now that they should,” said Berry. “We don’t like to tell people ‘no this is not a good program’ but we certainly focus on choosing something that integrates with Skyward and avoids separate databases.”
"OUR GOAL IS TO REMIND EVERYONE THAT DATA DRIVES DECISIONS AND DATA DRIVES FUNDING..."
It’s that type of give and take that leaves staff feeling satisfied with the culture and technology they use every day. When Alcoa first started using Skyward, their high school staff jumped feet first into the Gradebook solution by choice. While such a strategy would usually be a recipe for failure, Berry insists that their experience resulted in more communication and employee satisfaction. “Employees sent out emails to their colleagues saying, ‘I have discovered a way where you can put your textbook numbers in’ or ‘here is a report that will show you this.’”
By giving its employees sufficient access and options to Skyward from day one, Alcoa grew staff buy-in organically. The results over time have positioned Skyward as the starting point for all other processes and created a relaxed environment where staff don’t feel pressured to avoid third-party systems. If Alcoa’s technology department had approached Skyward’s implementation any differently, distrust may have ensued, which surely would’ve hindered the administration’s goal of buy-in toward a common database.
Now, district staff members look to Skyward with excitement and anticipation as they search for the next solution to simplify their roles. “We try to take advantage of as many features in Skyward as we can,” explained Berry. “There are people who are saying ‘let’s try to find a way to do this through Skyward.’”
Over time, one thing has become clear. While Alcoa thought it was investing in an SIS and ERP solution, in reality it was investing in so much more. The district invested in a changed culture and a technology approach that set an example for surrounding districts. “I’ve had a lot of districts ask me about our experience with Skyward and I always tell them how powerful the data mining is and how it has been the focal point of our district’s data and technology strategies,” explained Berry.
If Berry could spread a message that has been the driving force behind Alcoa’s success, it would boil down to two subjects: money and data. “Our goal is to remind everyone that data drives decisions and data drives funding, and accurate Skyward data ensures our district receives all the funding we are due.”
Moving forward, Alcoa hopes to continue improving its district-wide attitude toward a common database. “We hope to inspire more of our people to ask if a process can be done in Skyward before they look for other solutions,” explained Berry. “We already have teachers who are surprised if a program they are trying to use isn’t integrated with Skyward. That’s positive feedback if you ask me.”
If the past is any indication, Alcoa’s flexible approach of integrating third-party applications while maximizing Skyward’s capabilities will allow the district to continue growing and meeting emerging trends in transformative ways. That’s the power of interoperability.
Follow-up resource: K-12 Information Management Systems
To learn more about what a better experience could look like in your district, check out Skyward's K-12 SIS and ERP product suites.