By Nelson Hernandez and Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 28, 2009; B01
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.
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.
"We're doing everything we can to help them," Canada said. "We're making people available to answer their questions as they come up. We're definitely committed to getting children into the classroom as soon as possible."
Hite dismissed questions about whether the opening of schools ought to have been delayed, saying that the majority of the county's 130,000 students started school on time with no hitches. He expressed hope that all students would be in the correct classes by Monday.
At a heated Board of Education meeting Thursday night in Upper Marlboro, members grilled Hite and Watts for nearly two hours. Board members said they were upset to learn about the crisis Monday.
Hite denied knowing the extent of the problem until Monday, when he was touring schools. But Watts said, "We knew there were going to be issues."
"At Laurel High School, I saw about 400 kids sitting in the gymnasium," Hite said, describing the confusion there on the first day of school. "And that's when I knew we had a problem."
"If you didn't know about it and we didn't know about it, and both of us are being held accountable, then something is broke," board Vice Chairman Ron Watson (At Large) told Hite. Parents, Watson said, "can handle the truth. But what they can't handle is lies from elected officials, and they can't handle lies from the system."
Students and teachers were still paying the price for the logistical nightmare Thursday. They reported class assignments that made little sense and crowded classrooms. A student who hadn't taken Japanese 1 was assigned to Japanese 4. A student with dreadlocks was assigned to JROTC but was hesitant to go because he was worried he would have to cut his hair. Another student said her English class had 38 students.
"we basically are going 2 school 4 no point wut so ever," a student at Bowie High wrote on a Facebook page dedicated to a critique of SchoolMax. "we are wasting time going 2 are fake teachers and fake classes, doing fake work or nothing at all, for nothing at all."
An e-mail to ninth-grade teachers at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt told them to expect "extra 9th grade students today (and tomorrow) in your classes. Do not panic. Simply go ahead with your assignments and include them. Some will only be there on a temporary basis until schedules can be generated through SchoolMax. Dr. Hite has mandated that all students will be in classrooms by the end of today, and this temporary basis will enable ERHS to do this. Please, please bear with us and again -- don't panic."
The logistical problems have refocused public attention on SchoolMax, which was developed by Maximus of Reston before it was bought last year by Ottawa-based Harris. In 2005, Prince George's signed a $4.1 million contract with Maximus to begin using the system, but it wasn't deployed until last school year. This is the first year it has been used for scheduling, Hite said.
SchoolMax's largest client is the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest system in the country. It piloted SchoolMax in 2005 and has been using it for attendance and grade reporting for the past three years.
"We've had really positive experiences," said Themy Sparangis, the district's chief technology director.
The district does not use SchoolMax for scheduling yet and is in midst of what officials described as a rigorous testing process that includes piloting the new function in a few schools before a systemwide release. When school staff members find bugs in the program during testing, they report them to Harris.
School officials in Fremont, Calif., and Middletown, R.I., two other SchoolMax clients, said they liked the system. But Albuquerque and Richmond County, Ga., had problems with class scheduling.
When SchoolMax was introduced in Albuquerque in fall 2006, some schools delayed the start of classes by a day while officials raced to generate schedules for their students.
The problems were largely caused by insufficient training of the staff responsible for putting in student data, rather than problems in the software, said schools spokesman Rigo Chávez.
"Most of those problems were resolved in the first year," Chávez said. "We have not had significant problems since then."