Leveraging Technology: West Orange School District's Paperless Revolution

Successful school information systems (SIS) offer school districts the flexibility to pick and choose from a variety of modules to customize the SIS to their needs. This flexibility often brings downstream benefits that aren't even on the radar in the beginning. As an IT professional, it's reassuring to know that we can rely on the system and find new, innovative ways to leverage the technology for different needs and departments moving forward.

West Orange embraced this philosophy when it partnered with SRC Solutions (SRC) to integrate the Registration Gateway platform. The system was initially chosen because it automated the paperless student enrollment process. But it soon became obvious that the technology would provide tremendous benefits to other labor- and paper-intensive processes in different departments throughout the district.

Thanks to seamless integration, West Orange was able to reduce the burden on its IT personnel and to cut maintenance and hardware expenditures. In addition, using the same interface increased adoption rates in the district and eliminated end-user frustration.

Today the district is examining even more ways to leverage the technology — including human resources, teacher evaluations, contract management, A/P processing and the free and reduced-priced lunch program. In addition to the variety of different modules that are available, using an open platform will allow West Orange to configure custom workflows where needed.

This article focuses on the West Orange's paperless enrollment initiative, including how the technology was leveraged throughout the district to reduce other paper intensive processes. The results were dramatic and in many cases immediate — lowered costs, improved data collection and reporting, improved compliance and better relationships among the district, staff and parents.

Paper Problem — Cumbersome, Inefficient, Expensive
The West Orange, N.J., K-12 Public School District has been educating students since 1895. Located throughout West Orange, seven elementary schools, three middle schools and one high school educate a student body of more than 6,800. As with every school district in the country, West Orange actively evaluates new ways to reduce costs, improve efficiency and become more environmentally friendly. For West Orange, adopting new technology solutions proved particularly effective in this regard — including the establishment of an online curriculum, a new parent portal and a new paperless student registration process.

Over the years, the central registration process at the West Orange Public School district office had become unsustainably laborious and paper-intensive. At peak registration times, four registrars worked full-time to handle the process and manage reams of paper.

Many forms were completed in triplicate and parents had to rewrite a child's vital statistics multiple times during registration. After completion, registration forms were photocopied multiple times and sent via interoffice mail to numerous other school departments, including transportation, special services, information technology and so on. In addition, the data accuracy in the district's previous student information system (SIS) was much lower than they would have liked, which negatively affected their reporting and put the district at increasing risk of becoming non-compliant.

The Paperless Solution — Efficient, Integrated, Cost-Effective
When West Orange partnered with SRC Solutions to implement Registration Gateway, the effort began with the entry point for all data into the district — the forms themselves. Registrars and IT staff worked hand-in-hand with delivery specialists to reengineer every form in the registration process. This enabled the teams to gain a clear picture of the business rules that would ultimately enable them to automate the entire registration process.

Today, each form can be automatically routed to the appropriate West Orange department for additional information and sign-offs. In addition, the forms themselves are dynamic and can request different data depending on the information entered. For example, when a registrant indicates there is a language other than English spoken, this signals a new line of questioning to satisfy ESL requirements. The electronic student registration record is then automatically routed to the ESL department, ensuring no child falls between the cracks — as can happen with a manual, paper process.

Training needs for West Orange employees were minimal, particularly when compared with the number of processes typically handled during paperless registration. A combination of classroom training and practice runs enrolling a student ensured staff were prepared.

Expediting Pre-registration
West Orange parents and staff had grown weary of the long lines during registration periods. The SIS greatly reduces lines and expedites the registration process by allowing parents to enter their child's information — one time only — via Web-based forms either from home or at a kiosk at the school. While online, parents may also review school policies, read or download affidavits and other necessary documents, and schedule a registration appointment.

When a parent and student arrive at the school for registration, previously entered data is verified online and the registrar adds the requisite district-supplied data. Supporting documents — immunization records, birth records, proof of residency — are digitally scanned and stored, and an electronic parent signature is captured. A digital camera is available to take photos of students at the time of registration. The SIS automatically populates all remaining forms with the student information already entered. This later becomes the completed electronic registration packet. Meanwhile, the data from the registration process is automatically uploaded to the district's PowerSchool SIS in real time.

Flagging Missing Information for Later Follow-up

Using placeholders in the database, any missing documentation is flagged for follow-up — either through automated e-mail or phone calls to the parent or district employee, which continue weekly until the missing information is provided. Bar code technology is also used to track and enter new documents as they arrive.

Once a child's registration is complete, internal school departments are notified via email. For instance, special education students, homeless children and those with residency outside the district all require certain departments to be notified automatically.

Each student now has a computer file with all of the same documentation that used to be held in a paper file in the file rooms spread across the district. In addition to streamlining the registration process, saving time and reducing errors, the files are centralized and available from any computer (with proper security access).

Rapid ROI, Dramatic New Efficiencies

West Orange School District was able to streamline communication between school and parents and dedicate more resources to education instead of data entry. The new technology slashed the amount of time that West Orange staff dedicated to ensuring data was accurate. The solution provided the district a return on investment of less than six months.

West Orange also saw immediate improvements in the student enrollment process. By reducing data entry requirements by 80 percent, registrars were able to shorten the average registration time from 45 minutes to 10 minutes per student. Drop-down menus, database lookups, input masks and response-triggered fields dramatically reduced the amount of data being keyed, lowering errors by 90 percent and greatly speeding the process.
 
The departments that receive completed enrollments enjoy the benefits of a single dashboard view of the student's data, compared to the previous method of information being spread over many pieces of paper. This comprehensive single view also allows for easy printing if necessary.

Extending Across the Enterprise
Once student registration was in production, West Orange next set out to use Registration Gateway to manage the registration process for its West Orange Professional Development Center and Educational Technology Center.

Teachers can now access the district's catalog of professional development courses and register online. This has streamlined the process, miminizing administration costs for answering calls and completing paperwork. In addition, teachers can check course calendars for availability and coverage, reducing staffing conflicts. Requests are routed automatically for appropriate electronic signatures. Finally out-of-district teachers can pay for West Orange professional development courses and the system will automatically generate invoice and documentation to attend class.

West Orange is investigating ways to automate the documentation and workflow required to maintain compliance with New Jersey's nation-leading anti-bullying laws. The SIS platform — with workflow, documentation paper trail and audit capabilities — will be ideal for tracking, reducing risk and maintaining compliance and timely investigations and reporting of bullying incidents.

West Orange also plans to leverage the technology to offer online training modules for students, teachers and administrators on the topic of bullying as well as other mandated training that needs to be conducted annually. Materials can be studied and completed online. Certificates can be generated and routed automatically. And for compliance and audit trails, the completed questionnaire and certificates are stored in the system.

Filipe Santiago is the director of Staff Development and Technology for the West Orange Public Schools in New Jersey.

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