School district blames old technology for scheduling crisis at Thomas Jefferson High School

Students at Thomas Jefferson High School started the school year with chaos and confusion after arriving the first day without a class schedule of any kind.

In front of a packed room at the Federal Way School Board meeting on Sept. 13 at City Hall, Superintendent Rob Neu came right out and admitted that scheduling issues at TJ were a serious problem.

“The Thomas Jefferson schedule is in crisis,” he said. “I just wanted that acknowledged first and foremost.”

Neu said that the issues at TJ, where some parents said their students saw four different schedules within the first week, was a “perfect storm.” The superintendent said the biggest culprit in the scheduling was a technical glitch between two computerized systems at TJ: one that controls and creates the schedule itself, and another that is part of a new system designed for the standards-based grading policy.

“I just want to say to the TJ staff, to TJ parents, I’m sorry. This is not the best practice. The turmoil that your building started under is unacceptable. To the students in particular, I really want to say I’m sorry that you’ve been sitting in a class that may not be your class tomorrow, or the next day,” Neu said.

Eddie Turcotte, co-director of Information Technology Services (ITS) for Federal Way schools, conceded the problems experienced at TJ, and to a lesser extent districtwide, are the result of funding issues and, as Neu said, technological incompatibilities.

“The current economic state has something to do (with the problems),” he said. “We’ve lost a number of staff over in the ITS department in key positions, and it’s been difficult to replace them with people that are qualified for those positions.”

Turcotte said the key post of database administrator was vacated over the summer. That position allows direct access for his staff to make mass changes from the “back end” of the system. The person who held the position previously has worked off and on with the school district over the summer, Turcotte said, but that is problematic in its own right because that person had moved on and found another job already. As such, that person’s help is available in limited amounts.

The other issue that’s been affecting scheduling at TJ is an older software system and a new software system being unable to communicate, Turcotte said.

“The (scheduling) software we’re using is actually fairly antiquated, in that IBM no longer provides informing support or sells it anymore, and they haven’t for the past five years,” he said. “And we’ve been using that as our baseline student information system. On top of that, we are on the cutting edge of technology in support of the standards based education movement. And that product we do utilize for our gradebook. And the challenge has been, getting the two systems to communicate.”

Turcotte said he and his staff had been able to find what they hoped was a solution in the eleventh hour. He said the solution should get the scheduling issues moving forward at TJ, but conceded it was going to be a slow process.

Frustrated parents and staff

At the school board meeting, parents vented their frustration at the problems their students have experienced at TJ.

JoAnn Walker’s comments were illustrative of what’s happened at TJ since school started on Sept. 1. She described a shifting landscape of classes and schedules, with no one seeming to know a definitive answer.

“The first day of school came and no schedules were available, and kids were put into classes, just random classes, to be babysat for the first day of school. It was just unacceptable,” she said. “And then I had to wonder, on the second day of school, why my daughter was given four classes, instead of seven. And she was expected to stand in line for those remaining three classes and wait to talk to a counselor. Which of course she never saw the counselor.”

Walker said she felt that she was not the only parent facing an extreme sense of frustration, and that she believes the scheduling problems are not over at TJ.

“I’m positive that it’s not resolved yet because there are classes that have three students in it, and other classes that have 40-plus students in them. Personally, I have lost faith in the administration that they are able to handle this kind of situation.”

Federal Way School Board President Tony Moore interjected, asking why Walker felt the scheduling issues at TJ were not resolved.

“We’re heartbroken that these scheduling issues have taken place,” he said. “Is there more information that you’re not telling us, that pertains to the schedule that leads you to believe it’s not over?”

Walker replied carefully, citing Moore’s admonition from earlier in the meeting that the public comment period is not intended to lob criticism at specific board members and school district administration or staff.

“I have heard that the administration was actually in charge of doing our scheduling this year and that they didn’t ask for teacher input,” she said. “They just wanted to do it themselves, they wanted to have control of it, not show anyone the master list, and my understanding is they have a bigger play in it that just the whole mishandling of it.”

Neu stepped back in, re-iterating his own frustration at the situation that unfolded at TJ.

“I’m furious, and if it was my kid…I’d be livid. It’s unconscionable. If I was a teacher, I’d be livid,” he said. “This is not good.”

Delay the start of school?

Neu shared a surprising confession regarding the scheduling issues, saying he had considered delaying the start of the school year for TJ.

“I wanted to delay starting school until Tuesday (Sept. 7), when Lakeland was supposed to start,” he said. “But, we had information at that time, that we thought we were going to be OK. And while I’m convinced there were some things that led to this to begin with, human error, human judgment…understand, the principal (Dr. Marsha Denton) didn’t build the schedule alone. She had help from other individuals in the district who are experts with our system.”

The superintendent said he wanted it on the record that Denton had received aid in formulating the schedule because of a perception within the TJ community that Denton had refused all offers of aid during the time the schedule was being put together. But, Neu told the gathered staff, students and parents that it is his mission to make sure the chaotic conditions at the start of the 2011-12 school year will be just a bad memory.

“I will not tolerate this happening again,” he said. “I demand the schedule get done right the next time.”


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