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Pr. George's Scheduling Flaw Was Known Before School Started

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. answers questions about class scheduling problems at a mid-day news conference.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. answers questions about class scheduling problems at a mid-day news conference. (Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post)

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By Nelson Hernandez and Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 28, 2009

As the weeks wore on this summer, Prince George's County school administrators could see they were running out of time to avert a crisis over class schedules for the county's 41,000 high school students. But they had no backup system and didn't tell parents or students of the looming disaster until the opening bell of the school year made it all too clear that something was wrong.

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Almost as soon as they began testing the scheduling component of SchoolMax during the past school year, officials realized there were flaws in the new computer system, which was meant to speed the process of assigning each student to classes. They lost more than a month patching it, falling further behind as each deadline passed.

By the time they were ready to start scheduling students, the system's counselors and computer techs had three weeks to accomplish a task that typically takes two months, officials said Thursday.

"We didn't want to roll out a system that was totally broken," W. Wesley Watts Jr., the school system's chief information officer, said Thursday. "It's a matter of man-hours and getting it done. We ran out of time."

In the past few days, staffers have been working overtime to catch up. Software has been corrected and bandwidth added to make the system work faster. Central office personnel have been trained and rushed to high schools to develop schedules.

But for the more than 1,900 students who still didn't have schedules by midday Thursday, it's too late to make up four lost days of sitting in school auditoriums, gyms and cafeterias, or in classes they don't need or want.

"I have no faith in this school system now until they find who's accountable and do something about it," said Richard Bleach, the father of a Bowie High School senior who still has an incorrect schedule. "I've waited a few days, and it seems to be getting worse rather than better."

At a news conference Thursday, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said that "to have more than 8,000 high school students out of class on the first day is inexcusable."

"I want to offer my sincere apologies to the students, families and staff of Prince George's County public schools for the severe disruption to the school year that these scheduling difficulties have imposed," he added.

Hite has led the school system since late last year. He became interim superintendent in December after the departure of his predecessor, John E. Deasy, and in April was chosen as Deasy's successor. He said officials are reviewing the contract with SchoolMax "to see if there are possible damages that can be recovered."

Jerry Canada, general manager for the school division of Harris Computer Systems, the Canadian company that owns SchoolMax, said other clients who use the system have not experienced similar scheduling problems. Nor have they seen difficulties like those that plagued Prince George's last year, which included mistakes on report cards.

He said he could not comment on whether the problem in Prince George's was the result of a software malfunction or implementation errors by district officials.


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