SchoolMAX cited in back-to-school nightmare

"We knew there were students still missing their schedules before school started," said PGCPS Supt. William Hite.
"We knew there were students still missing their schedules before school started," said PGCPS Supt. William Hite.

It’s every administrator’s nightmare: Thousands of students arrive on the first day of school with no schedule and nowhere to go…and parents, teachers, and the news media are shouting questions, demanding to know who’s to blame.

Thanks to what school officials claim was malfunctioning software, this nightmare became a reality for Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), in suburban Washington, D.C.

On Aug. 24, more than 8,000 students who attend high schools in PGCPS were left without schedules and placed by school administrators into makeshift holding facilities, such as gymnasiums and cafeterias. On Aug. 27, almost 2,000 students were still stranded. And parents and students weren’t happy.

As school officials tell it, the problem arose from a perfect storm: malfunctioning centralized student software, poor IT planning, and one of the largest schools districts in the U.S.

Go back to last year, when the storm clouds were first beginning to gather. PGCPS implemented the $4.1 million SchoolMAX system—an enterprise Student Information System (SIS)—to streamline its student operations.

With the implementation of SchoolMAX, administrators said, systems began to produce shaky results, especially in the area of grading.

According to PGCPS Chief Information Officer Wesley Watts, the district was using two different versions of Mygradebook, and both were managed locally by school administrators. “We wanted a centralized system where we could collect all grading data,” explained Watts during a press conference, “so we let SchoolMAX handle that.”

That was an error, according to accounts posted by a public social networking group on Facebook called “SCHOOLMAX SUCKS!!!! AND I HATE IT!!!!” The group, with more than 4,000 members, reportedly created by persons familiar with Eleanor Roosevelt High School in PGCPS, says some student grades were lost, and some were issued with errors, such as reporting that a student received an ‘E’ instead of an ‘A,’ all of which resulted in furious parents and students.

Some high school seniors even had to manage their transcripts so colleges wouldn’t misinterpret the effects of the software glitch.

It wasn’t until the beginning of June, however, when the clouds began to turn ominously dark. According to Watts, PGCPS considered SchoolMAX capable of handling not only grading but schedules as well. Indeed, the SchoolMAX web site clearly strives to create that expectation:

“With SchoolMAX Enterprise, you can integrate your academic requirements, material resources, student performance data and constraints, and allow the scheduler to mediate all the conflicts. SchoolMAX Enterprise’s dynamic scheduler allows the creation of the most workable, efficient student, teacher, and class schedules.” SchoolMAX has 76 clients, it is reported, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school systems in the U.S. after New York City.

Even so, SchoolMAX school-district clients in Georgia, Rhode Island, and New Mexico reportedly have all gone on the record claiming that SchoolMAX software is either not user friendly or crashes frequently.

Regardless of these warning signs (Watts even told reporters SchoolMAX had crashed multiple times since implementation), PGCPS went ahead and rolled out SchoolMAX’s scheduling capabilities.