The Road to Computerization

How do today's school administrators keep pace with the ever-changing needs and informational requirements of a comprehensive transportation system? The merging of computer technology with the transportation system can be a particular benefit; however, it also can prove to be an enormous challenge.

To begin, the school district should establish certain criteria and a common basis for interviewing software vendors. The process of reviewing software programs should involve the support staff, bus contractor (if applicable), drivers and principals. On-site visits to school districts where potential vendors' software programs are installed can be valuable. The selection or development process of a computerized transportation system needs to be established with a consideration for basic issues:

-What are the primary objectives for computerizing?

-Who will be involved with day-to-day functions of the program?

-Can the benefits and cost projections be justified?

The determination of what information the system needs to provide and who will benefit from access to that information is vital to the program's long-term success. Users usually want every piece of information ever required available immediately. The reality is determining how to manage the tremendous amount of data entry and this desire for immediate knowledge.

A limited amount of staff time spent on updating information can create havoc for a transportation system. The flow of information through the school system also needs to be addressed. Information involving student registration and school assignments, as well as special transportation needs and withdrawals, must be communicated accurately to transportation-department personnel in a timely manner. Information that is shared throughout the district and is not placed into the software database for access by the transportation department is of little value.

Selection criteria The selection of vendors should be based on criteria that provides equal comparison of software programs. Consider asking the following questions:

-How long has the vendor provided transportation software programs, and in how many districts is the program currently operating?

-What provisions does the vendor provide for access to source-code documentation for the program in the event the vendor goes out of business or is sold? This is an extremely important factor, if after three to four years of using the software, support from the vendor is no longer available.

Develop a software contract and support-service agreement that specifically addresses the issue of source-code documentation. The day-to-day support levels also should be provided for identifying phone support, on-site support, and have specific wording that addresses emergency service. A student transportation software program that fails to operate properly or crashes the day before school begins is a traumatic experience.

When choosing districts using the software under consideration to visit, select one that compares equally with your own. A software program that is suitable and works admirably for a small district may produce significant conflicts for a larger district. Selection of a district that has equal enrollment, a comparable number of schools, and operates a similar bus service and fleet level will provide valuable insight into the program's operation. Meet with employees who use the software program daily. The efficient operation of a software program can be gauged quickly by the attitude of the support staff that is responsible for updating the data and accessing information.

While discussing the daily requirements of the program, also determine how many individuals are involved with the data upgrading. A software program that requires the hiring of additional support staff in order to be maintained can be a tough sell.

Additional considerations In most cases, a pre-designed software program will not meet all of the specific needs of a district. The discussions with the vendor should include concerns that may not be provided for within the program, yet are of extreme importance to the transportation operation. The vendor must understand the value of these concerns, and be able to address the need for custom program changes.

The district's desire to purchase a software program through a vendor should state the custom programming required before the software is installed. The discussions with the vendor need to involve the support staff that has the knowledge of day-to-day requirements of the transportation operation. A software program that is purchased, only to discover that it is not compatible on a daily basis and requires old methods, does not improve efficiency. In fact, the morale level of support staff struggling to maintain a computer system that provides little or no advantage can decline rapidly.

Review the conversion of and the process for converting district data with the selected vendors. The student information files used within a district's operation should be able to be converted into the new software program with reasonable accuracy. Determine if the file structures require alpha or numeric data input that easily can be cross-referenced between the current system and the new software.

Also examine importing data. Installing a new software system will flow more smoothly if the data can be converted accurately and requires limited review and re-keying.

Breeding familiarity The data and information structure of a software program should match systems and procedures already in place. If a software program requires the redesign of the transportation operation, reconsider its value. The ability to review familiar formats, reports, bus routes and student data will have an immediate impact on the success or failure of the software. School bus drivers, secretaries and building principals become comfortable with route sheets, student cards, building reports, etc., and change can be difficult to accept.

The vendor should be willing to accommodate the district's desire to maintain continuity with its current transportation operation. The district representatives, however, need to remain open-minded to the idea that the software may serve to improve operations and efficiency. In addition to district reporting, the reporting of transportation information may involve submitting reports to various local, state and federal agencies. The vendor should be able to provide report formats and specific data required by these agencies.

Consider the accessibility to the software program on a districtwide level. Ask if the software program is designed for a network computer or a stand-alone computer system. Carefully consider if it is imperative that each school principal and secretary have access to the data. The security of information and responsibilities for updating data can be miscommunicated when individual users are not given specific program limitations.

The software vendor should provide user access based on view only, add data, delete data, edit data and functions. Specific areas of the software program, such as year-end conversion, calendar updates, code structure, etc., should be assigned to one individual or a network administrator. The amount of data and the district's networking capabilities may impact the decision to purchase a software program; however, most programs are designed for compatible operation on a stand-alone personal computer.

Users in training Consider what provisions the vendor has for training. The training should be available on-site and be established with timelines for operational requirements considered. The initial training should provide basic instructions for data input, editing and report generation. More timely training should occur as the operation requires (i.e., local and state end-of-year reports, start-of-school reports, driver route sheets, etc.) The training for a task that is only required once per year often has to be repeated if not provided in a timely manner.

Other training issues to discuss involve direct on-screen help menus, which aid the user in program operations and definitions. The vendor should provide a user manual, as well as updates whenever any software upgrades are provided.

Selling the cost The cost justification may prove to be the ultimate challenge in moving to a computerized transportation software program. The financial cost of the program and offset savings in staff time need to be equated. If the program provides for more intensive data entry with little access to the information, the value may be questionable. A software program that meets the requirements of the current transportation system, includes functions that meet operational needs, and provides a level of support staff satisfaction cannot always be justified when cost is the only objective. For this reason, district representatives need to establish the criteria for software review, and pre-determine those areas that may have to be sacrificed.

When reviewing the cost structure of the program, be sure to consider all the factors involved. Request specific cost breakdowns on conversion of data, custom programming, base cost of the program, support-level costs, and cost to maintain upgrades and future enhancements.

The requirements of today's student transportation system demands more immediate access to information. On a day-to-day basis, the tracking of students coming and going to school is an integral part of the educational environment. Parents demand that the safety of students and knowledge of their location is available, and tracked by the school district. The transportation manager's access to this information can be improved greatly through the careful consideration and implementation of a computerized transportation software program.

The Carlisle Area School District, Pa., initiated a plan to computerize its pupil transportation systems in the fall of 1995. The process called for the review of software, selection of a vendor and implementation of the system beginning with the 1996-1997 school year.

Throughout the review process, several areas of concern and emphasis on certain requirements developed. The district's desire was to obtain and utilize a computerized system that matched the daily operational requirements already in place. The ability of the software to produce bus rosters and reports already familiar to bus drivers, parents and administrators was given extreme priority. In this manner, representatives were more confident that instead of changing the pupil transportation operation to match the computer, the district could improve administrative functions and efficiency.

When the review process was completed, it was determined that while the software programs offered significant features, none of the pre-designed packages provided familiar formats. In January, the district began considering developing a pupil transportation system in-house.

The representatives involved with the review process understood the requirements and needs of the transportation system, but lacked the computer expertise to create a software program. There were benefits to coordinating with an outside firm for software development in a cooperative venture. A local computer firm began to assist representatives in writing the program using the district's established criteria and background in pupil transportation.

District representatives continued to establish program priorities that would enhance the software, including:

-Reports that could be viewed on-screen without requiring a printout.

-Availability of student and bus-driver pictures and IDs.

-Census data that could be selected by region.

The ability to import ASCII text files, as a result of the district encompassing a military institution and the transition of approximately 800 of the 4,000 students transported each year, was incorporated into the program structure. All of these design features were developed to match the ongoing manual report formats already being used throughout the district.

The Carlisle Area School District implemented the program with the 1996-1997 school term, and in a collaborative effort with the local computer firm, began marketing the program in October 1997.Every school washroom environment presents unique problems and opportunities in terms of the level of toilet partition and accessory vandal resistance and durability required. Patron behavior, traffic volume and usage patterns affect product selections.

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