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Schools Beset by Computer Errors

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By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 10, 2005

D.C schools continue to experience problems with a new computer system, with some principals saying yesterday that their schools have been unable to record attendance, print student schedules or even access the Internet since Wednesday.

In the past week, a number of students found mistakes in their class schedules because of glitches in the computer system, which is called D.C. STARS and is designed to handle attendance, grading and the calculation of graduation and dropout rates, among other functions. School officials said at the time that the problem affected about 5 percent of secondary students.

The principals interviewed yesterday said the problems this week were more serious.

"We've been down for three days," said one secondary school principal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concern that his comments could get him into trouble. "I've sent my attendance counselor down to the central office to see if she could input today's attendance. She said they couldn't do anything."

In an internal memo dated yesterday, D.C. schools Chief Information Officer Gregory Barlow criticized the way the computer system was set up.

"In my experience, the combination of an Oracle database, Windows operating system, Unix hardware and an Apache webserver is a bad combination," Barlow wrote in the memo to Thomas M. Brady, the school system's chief business operations officer.

"In fact, through our research the last few days, we have found an advisory on the Apache website that states, 'Please note that at this time, Windows support is entirely experimental and is recommended only for experienced users.' The Apache Group does not guarantee that the software will work as documented or even at all."

Brady and Barlow said yesterday that employees at some schools were experiencing slowness with the system. But they denied that any school had been unable to use the system for a prolonged period.

"D.C. STARS is not a broken system," Brady said. Still, he added, "We're going to come up with a game plan to improve the system for school administrators in D.C."

Barlow said officials plan to replace Windows with a different operating system.

Meria J. Carstarphen, the chief accountability officer, said that D.C. STARS has great potential and that some of the glitches are attributable to long-standing problems with the city's technology infrastructure.

Stephen Tarason, principal of Wilson Senior High School in Northwest, said staff members there were unable to file weekly attendance figures Thursday as required. He said that computer technicians showed the staff a way to bypass the problem and that the figures were filed yesterday.

"The system has been slow the last couple of days; it's been off and on," Tarason said.

Some activists expressed concern that the computer problems might hinder the school system's ability to determine enrollment, which could affect school funding and even facilities planning. Each school is funded under a formula that is based on enrollment.

Mark Roy, a community representative on the local school restructuring team at Eastern Senior High School on East Capitol Street, said inaccurate enrollment data could skew a plan that Superintendent Clifford B. Janey will put together in the next few months to close or consolidate underused schools.

"Instead of the technology helping, it could be a hindrance," Roy said.


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