Lawrence school district needs to shake PowerSchool’s bad first impression, staff member says

Also: Seniors will have to make up time; board to meet at 6 p.m. going forward

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Kirsten Wondra, the Lawrence school district's assistant director of learning and technology, speaks about PowerSchool software during a school board meeting on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019.

One problem facing the district’s PowerSchool team is getting the sour taste out of users’ mouths, Kirsten Wondra told the Lawrence school board at its Monday meeting.

“That initial impression is hard to rebrand,” said Wondra, the district’s assistant director of learning and technology. “So for me, I think that’s probably our biggest challenge, but I will say I think we’ve got the right team to push it forward.”

The program is meant to fulfill the tasks of several others in one, but it kicked off the school year with what she described as a “bumpy start.” Wondra — along with Jerri Kemble, assistant superintendent of leading, learning and technology, and Susan Fowler, project manager — gave the board an update on the software, which the district agreed to purchase in 2017.

PowerSchool is “greatly, infinitely customizable,” Wondra said, which means that one person’s program may look completely different from the next person’s. That’s one of the program’s great joys, but it’s also a challenge when it comes to learning to use the software, she said.

“Creating those one-size-fits-all types of teacher training are not super helpful, so we’ll continue to meet that push-pull need of teachers having very individual questions, yet needing some broad-based information on how the system works as a whole,” Wondra said.

Staff members now on the PowerSchool team were previously working their full-time jobs and devoting background time to the software, Kemble told the board. The first step to addressing the problems was for the district to reassign staff to the project.

“We were able to bring people out of positions that they were in to be on this dedicated team, and I think you’ll find tonight that that is what’s made the difference,” Kemble said, and noted that other staff members have had to pick up the pieces in the departments of the PowerSchool team.

Fowler told the board that having the team has been key to completing projects and providing support for users. For instance, she said that in January, there were 358 tickets submitted; the team was able to close 330, for a 92 percent completion rate.

“It’s difficult to provide any comparative data because our prior process was pretty fragmented, but I do believe that we’ve made huge gains in our response time and our customer service,” she said.

Board president Jessica Beeson told the group that she’s heard from several parents who gave up on using the software and are waiting “until it’s fixed to even try again.”

Wondra referred back to her point about the program’s customizability. Wondra has also used the analogy that the program shift is like moving from the dashboard in your car to the dashboard of a 747, Kemble said.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Jerri Kemble, the Lawrence school district’s assistant superintendent of leading, learning and technology, speaks about PowerSchool during a school board meeting on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019.

“I think we’ve got a lot of irritated, gun-shy, annoyed patrons, teachers that don’t think that it works, and it does,” Wondra said. “… This is a fantastic system and it was a great expenditure. So we’ve now got the uphill battle of making sure that it works appropriately, but then repairing all the damage that its missteps caused.”

Once it’s fully implemented, Kemble said, PowerSchool “will be the central nervous system that touches every piece of the school district.”

Board member Shannon Kimball asked the group about how course scheduling is working this year for rising sixth- and ninth-graders. Fowler said students going into middle school will use PowerSchool; students going into high school will use Career Cruising, and that information will feed into PowerSchool.

Wondra said the district would send out further information later this week.

• • •

In other business:

Sorry, seniors: Superintendent Anthony Lewis announced that after five inclement weather days this winter, all grade levels still meet the state’s minimum required minutes of instructional time except for high school seniors.

Administrators will work with the high school principals to come up with a plan to get seniors back up to the requirement. Staff is also working on a plan just in case school has to be canceled again, he said.

Meeting time change: The school board voted to change its regular meeting time from 7 p.m. to 6 p.m. for the remainder of the fiscal year. Board president Jessica Beeson said the time change would be beneficial to staff members who may have to commute home to Kansas City; also, oftentimes students are involved in the meetings, which have sometimes run as late as 9 or 10 p.m.

If the board needs to schedule a special work session or executive session, Beeson said, the meeting could be moved back to 7 p.m. for the few occasions a year that those circumstances arise.

The board approves its next year’s meeting schedule each July. Board member Rick Ingram said after Monday’s meeting that he thinks as long as there no problems with the new time, it will likely continue into the next year as well.

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