As technology continues to play a more prominent role in everyday life, the idea that it will be available, beneficial, and user-friendly has become a baseline expectation.
The North East Florida Educational Consortium (NEFEC), a regional, nonprofit, educational service agency that provides cooperative services to 15 member districts that serve over 44,000 students, was struggling to meet that expectation with its outdated administrative technology systems.
"Our goal was to find one integrated system...that offered us the freedom to focus far less on maintenance and more on innovation."
“Since 1981 we have relied on a mainframe-based system to manage our student and business operations,” said Candy Garcia, director of information technology. “Our legacy system was incredibly inflexible, requiring tremendous energy and resources to make even the smallest changes.”
“There were numerous things that the districts needed, not only from a MIS (Management Information Systems) perspective, but also from an instructional side that we just could not provide with our legacy system,” said Daniel Hornsby, the NEFEC coordinator of student applications software. “For example, many of our districts wanted a gradebook, but because our system was so limited and because we spent so much time just trying to maintain what we already had, we didn’t have the ability to deliver this additional functionality. Some of the districts chose to purchase a third-party application and, in the end, we were tasked with supporting those systems as well.”
The inflexibility of the system and lack of integration between the student, business and, in some cases, third-party systems made it difficult for administrators to access information for decision making and creating reports.
NEFEC realized the only way to meet the lengthy list of requirements they desired from a system was to purchase a new one. “We wanted to implement a new system that could meet the needs of all of our different users,” Garcia said. “Our goal was to find one integrated system to manage both our student and business operations that offered the flexibility and performance required to meet the rapidly changing needs of our users, and one that offered us the freedom to focus far less on maintenance and more on innovation.”
"At the conference, we witnessed the positive attitude of the Skyward people and their willingness to work with customers to ensure their ongoing success."
NEFEC’s Board members, comprised of the superintendents of each district, were involved in every phase of the selection process. Together, they tried to determine which systems best fit NEFEC’s extensive criteria. After evaluating numerous solutions, the Board collectively chose Skyward’s Student Management Suite and School Business Suite.
The Unanimous Solution
“We began our research on possible new systems in 2001,” said Garcia. “And from that point until the time we chose Skyward [in 2009] we saw a tremendous fluctuation in the market. Some vendors changed their names, some were purchased by a competitor or public companies that incorporated the product into their own product line, and some went out of business. But during that same period Skyward remained a very stable, privately held company with an excellent track record.”
To validate their initial impression, the NEFEC Board members visited two districts using Skyward’s solutions. They also spent a day at the Skyward corporate office in Stevens Point, Wisconsin and attended the March 2009 Skyward International Conference in Orlando.
“It was clear from talking with numerous Skyward customers that they were very satisfied with Skyward’s technology and with the level of ongoing support they received,” said Garcia. “We also noticed during our visit to Skyward’s corporate office that many employees had been with the company for some time - 10, even 20 years; that speaks volumes. At the conference, we witnessed the positive attitude of the Skyward people and their willingness to work with customers to ensure their ongoing success. And Skyward has extensive experience working with other consortiums, Washington State being the largest, so we were confident that they had the expertise to truly understand our business and our requirements.” Garcia said the decision to choose Skyward was unanimous across the Board.
"With our previous system it was very difficult for the districts to access the information they needed to make decisions and meet state reporting requirements."
Streamlined operations and increased efficiency
With an automated and integrated system in place, NEFEC was able to eliminate many of the manual processes that once consumed much of their employees’ time. Streamlined operations make NEFEC more efficient and effective at responding to the needs of both employees and taxpayers.
Real-time information empowers teachers, staff, parents, and students
“With our previous system it was very difficult for the districts to access the information they needed to make decisions and meet state reporting requirements. Often they would come to us for the information they were looking for,” explained Phil Heilman, NEFEC’s coordinator of business application software. “But Skyward offers a data mining tool that automatically captures all relevant information and enables users to quickly and easily produce custom reports on their own and in the desired format. And employees have the ability to export information into an Excel spreadsheet so they can manipulate the data offline – that has been a major selling point to the business-side users.”
With Skyward, districts can extend information to thousands of new users by offering teachers, parents, and students access to a Web-based portal, a feature their previous system was unable to provide. Employees can access information such as payroll, which will reduce the number of phone calls into the administrative departments. Teachers can post assignments and communicate with students and parents through a sleek messaging interface.
Improving communication and student performance with integrated gradebook
Hornsby said one of the biggest advantages of the Skyward system is the integrated gradebook. “Many of our districts have been asking for this functionality, some going so far as to implement their own third-party systems. But with the Skyward Gradebook module, the gradebook will be integrated right into the system.”
Prior to implementing Skyward, the districts did not have the ability to determine a student’s progress during a grading period, only at the end of the term when it was too late to make changes. With the integrated gradebook, however, teachers can inform students and parents about assignments and parents can check to make sure their children are keeping up with standards. The gradebook has also reduced costs for some districts because they no longer have to purchase or pay maintenance for third-party systems.
“The integrated gradebook will help our member districts to better serve the students by empowering them to take more control of their own academic success, and it will give parents visibility into what their kids are, or should be, doing so they can also help their children thrive academically,” said Garcia.
Meeting its members’ needs today and in the future
NEFEC is pleased with the flexibility, efficiency, and visibility Skyward’s systems offer to both their business users and the broader community. “These systems represent the present and the future for our industry,” said Garcia. “We need the ability to meet the new requirements of an Internet-driven society, and it is imperative that we have the flexibility to meet the rapidly changing needs of our users. We are confident that, with the help of Skyward, we will provide our member districts with the information and tools they need to drive continued success.”
The Consortium is a regional, non-profit, educational service agency established to provide cooperative services to member districts. It exercises no control over its clients, is non regulatory, and has no taxing authority. Participation in programs and services through the Consortium is completely voluntary. Therefore, the Consortium is designed to be sensitive and responsive to the needs and desires of the school districts being served.
The mission of the North East Florida Educational Consortium is to help member districts cooperatively meet their educational goals and objectives by providing programs and services that individual districts would not be able to provide as effectively or as economically when acting alone.
The superintendents of member districts serve as the Board of Directors for the Consortium. They meet as a group each month with the Consortium staff for briefings and information. The Board sets policy, approves the budget, employs personnel, and provides direction by guiding the development of programs and services furnished by the Consortium. Their leadership and support are great assets. For more information visit www.nefec.org