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Md. Students Miss 3rd Day of Classes as Officials Try to Fix Scheduling Errors

By Nelson Hernandez and Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 27, 2009; A01

Thousands of Prince George's County high school students missed a third day of classes Wednesday, and school officials said it could take more than a week to sort out the chaos caused by a computerized class-scheduling system.

Students were placed in gyms, auditoriums, cafeterias, libraries and classes they didn't want or need at high schools across the county as their parents' fury over the logistical nightmare rose.

"The school year comes up the same time every year," said Carolyn Oliver, the mother of a 16-year-old senior who spent Wednesday in the senior lounge at Bowie High School. "When I heard they didn't have schedules, I was like, 'What have they been doing all summer?' "

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said that some schools didn't realize there was a problem with schedules until school started and that the trouble was exacerbated by difficulties with SchoolMax, a $4.1 million computer system introduced last school year. He said the system was patched Tuesday night so that school officials could work more quickly and that newly trained schedulers were being deployed to high schools.

"We're working to resolve it," Hite said. "We appreciate the patience of the parents. We know this is difficult."

When school opened Monday, about 8,000 high school students had no class schedules and were sent to wait in holding spaces while administrators tried to sort things out. By Tuesday evening, that number was down to 4,000.

On Wednesday, on the orders of central office administrators who wanted to break up the large groups of students, some schools put students into classes almost at random, said staff members, parents and students.

"We do not have the luxury of holding students in a gym for the day until the schedules are worked out, so administratively we came up with a decision to give these 'mock' schedules until legitimate schedules can be produced," according to an internal memo from one high school obtained by The Washington Post.

Hite said that many students' schedules were still flawed but that it was necessary to put as many students as possible in classrooms. "After yesterday, all kids were either going into a temporary class or their core class," he said. "We don't have many schools now where there are large groups of kids congregated."

SchoolMax is supported by Harris Computer Systems, based in Canada. It has 76 clients, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school system in the United States, where it is used for 300,000 middle and high school students. Telephone messages left Wednesday afternoon with a Harris executive in charge of the company's school division were not returned.

As of noon Wednesday, 3,400 of the school district's 41,000 high school students had no class schedules, officials said. Some of those who had received them found errors.

My daughter "selected a sewing class because she is interested in fashion design, but the school selected a basic piano class," Gabrielle Clemons, mother of a junior at Parkdale High School in Riverdale, wrote in an e-mail. Clemons's daughter also chose a business-career class but was assigned to a human sexuality and family life class, a course she had taken in ninth grade, Clemons wrote.

Figures released by the school system Wednesday afternoon showed that widespread problems remained at many of the county's 22 high schools: 425 students without schedules at DuVal; 350 each at Eleanor Roosevelt and Suitland; 300 at Parkdale; 293 at Crossland; and others elsewhere. The countywide total was 3,415.

Several teachers, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said they were infuriated by the situation and predicted that it could take weeks to sort it out.

"The people who are supposed to be implementing this need to take some responsibility," said a teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt. "If I did my job like that, I'd be looking for a new job. I'd be fired."

School board member Amber Waller (At Large) called the situation "ridiculous," adding, "It's our responsibility as board members to call for accountability. We need to find out why . . . and what needs to be done so that it does not happen again."

Hite said that the number of high-schoolers who began the year with scheduling errors was "about double" the number in previous years and that it usually takes two weeks to sort out scheduling issues during a normal school year.

"It's going to be shorter than in the past," he said. Forty-six additional central office staff members have been trained and deployed to the high schools to help with scheduling.

SchoolMax went online in Prince George's a year ago to help the county track students' grades, attendance and discipline data. Last year, the program crashed at least four times and was plagued by errors that led to botched schedules, an overcount of students and mistakes on report cards.

Hite said the scheduling problem originated in two failed attempts to update student records for the new year. The delay meant that class requests couldn't be plugged into the scheduling system until late summer, he said.

Students normally receive their schedules a week before school, and SchoolMax was supposed to allow parents to check the schedules online. But some schools apparently didn't realize a problem existed until school started.

The problems were made worse by SchoolMax's speed: Under the previous system, teachers and parents said, it would take five to 10 minutes to complete a student's schedule. With SchoolMax, it can take 45 minutes.

Alvin Pinkney Sr. arrived at Laurel High School's front office about 8:45 a.m. Wednesday to determine why his daughter Jessica did not have a schedule. He called her to the office to see whether she wanted to go home. "It's a waste of her time," Pinkney said. "It's a waste of everyone's time."

Jessica Pinkney, a junior, said she was moved to the cafeteria Wednesday morning after two days in the gymnasium because the cafeteria had air conditioning. She said she had been given an index card Tuesday with the number 195, which she said indicated her place in line to receive a schedule.

"We just sit and do nothing," she said. "But I'm meeting new people, so it's getting more interesting."

At Bowie High, "we've just been sitting there," said Deborah Kuranga, 17, a senior who was waiting for a schedule Wednesday morning. "Today they gave us stuff to do. . . . We had SAT prep, but most of us don't even need it. I've already taken the SAT. . . . I feel like it's a waste of time."

Staff writers Nick Anderson and Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.

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