A dozen large charts are propped against the walls in Roland Chew's boxy trailer office in Upper Marlboro, each covered with hundreds of blue, green and yellow slips of paper.
This is the transportation command center for the Prince George's County public schools and it is where Chew, the chief scheduler, painstakingly tracks hundreds of bus runs each day.
Making adjustments when necessary to ease overloaded buses on some runs, underused buses on others, he takes down a slip of paper, crosses out a street, writes the street on another slip, then staples both back on the charts.
There is ample suspicion that only Chew, who has been doing this for 30 years, truly understands this system.
"I told him to be careful walking across the street," said new School Superintendent Iris T. Metts, "because if he's hit by a car, no one will be able to replace him."
Officials dream of the day when they can put the information on Chew's walls on more efficient and accessible computerized maps. But for now, Chew and his colleagues in Maryland's largest school district make do with a woefully low-tech system of three-ring binders, pens and pencils and carbon copies.
Across the Washington region, school systems are working to transform their administrative offices with high-tech systems that employ interactive Web sites, high-concept software and lap-top computers. They hope that better technology will eliminate costly paperwork and clerical staff--allowing more money and resources for the classroom--and at the same time enable educators to catalogue student data in ways that can help them improve instruction.
Some districts are having more success than others. Fairfax County has a sophisticated system that connects all its central office departments and its schools to a universal data bank. Montgomery County has a similar system, but suffered an embarrassing technological breakdown last week when a new information system for student data malfunctioned.
For other systems like the District and Prince George's, which are further behind, upgrading technology is crucial, but also expensive--up to $15 million for the basics, according to estimates from Prince George's officials.
Still, since taking over July 1, Metts has repeatedly said that one of her top goals is to update the system's technology for the 21st century.
"It's an impossible situation to do things quickly, and we are not as effective as we should be," Metts said. "If databases could [interact with] each other, we'd save time and effort."
In Prince George's, for example, personnel staff must enter the names of new employees three times into computers in different departments--one for personnel files, one for certification, one for payroll--because each has a separate data bank. Principals ordering supplies or hiring new teachers have to call or fax requests to the central office--rather than place orders online--and wait weeks for orders to be approved and processed.
And then there were the two embarrassing foul-ups in the payroll department that officials blamed on outdated technology: In 1997, some teachers mistakenly were issued two bonuses--one of which administrators sheepishly took back--and in 1998 some teachers did not get a raise on time when the computers failed to process them quickly enough.
Alberta Paul was appalled when she observed the Prince George's system.
"I saw people walking from office to office to get data. That was the first unnecessary activity taking place," said Paul, who was hired by Metts to oversee information technology, which she did the past two years for the Philadelphia public schools. "You should be able to go to a shared file and pull files electronically."
That's what they do in Fairfax County, where central office administrators can pull files of teachers and other employees at the click of a computer mouse, and transportation officials feed data into a computer that recommends the most efficient bus routes. Meanwhile, every school has been linked to an information system that allows principals to download student records and place purchase orders electronically.
"It means less paperwork and more real time" for employees to concentrate on other work, said Maribeth Luftglass, Fairfax's new chief information officer.
There can, however, be risks in going high-tech too quickly. Montgomery County suffered a technological nightmare when it tried to operate a newly installed $4 million computer program that was supposed to keep track of student registration, scheduling, attendance and academic records.
The system crashed in the first week of classes, leaving many high school students with no classroom assignments as administrators struggled with slow, unresponsive computers.
"These systems are very complex and very difficult and require a lot of time and attention before they're rolled out on an unsuspecting school population," Montgomery County schools spokesman Brian Porter said. "We literally had a system that fell apart right in front of us."
Principals in Prince George's, however, say the system's inefficient, low-tech administrative operations have led to real problems that affect the classroom. In addition to slowdowns in hiring teachers, principals complain of backups on ordering supplies and furniture because forms are filled out by hand, instead of electronically.
"That's really a pain, and it doesn't work [efficiently]," said Gerald Boarman, principal of Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt. "I ought to be able to communicate with them online."
In the instruction department, officials have begun storing detailed test results on students, but principals cannot readily access the information; instead, they must wait for bulky binders to be mailed to them. In other systems, such data is warehoused in powerful computers that can catalogue it and analyze it by race, gender, age or other criteria.
Prince George's ended up with mismatched technology from one department to the next, officials say, because each piece was installed in a virtual vacuum. First, the system bought computers to handle budget and financial documents; then for student accounting, student test scores, personnel, transportation and so on. Each system was bought for the lowest price possible and often was not compatible with other computer systems.
The same happened in Fairfax and Montgomery, but officials in those counties found the money to build computer networks that upgraded and connected the mismatched systems and software.
In Metts's world, the central office will share a universal data bank that will allow every department to draw information instantly and speed such routine processes as teacher-certification and purchase orders. Students will carry identification cards with bar codes for fast attendance-taking that will allow them to purchase lunch, use computers and check out library books. Teachers will download test scores, instructional research and lesson plans off the Internet.
But how does Prince George's, under a severe budget crunch, find the estimated $15 million it will cost to upgrade technology?
For starters, Metts has eliminated about 130 central office positions, saving about $8 million that she says will be redirected to technology needs.
Metts also favors a solution called "outsourcing," in which the school system would hire a private company to store documents on a customized computer system accessible by school officials districtwide.
"You eliminate the need to have high-end computers. The terminal can be simple--you just need the capacity to receive information," Metts said. "We'd hire someone to maintain the system for us."
For Metts, the sooner the better. Her first day on the job, she was shocked to find that her own office had no computer.
"It took several weeks before I got it," she recalled with a resigned chuckle. "That was my first indication we do not have a very efficient technology operation."
CAPTION: Tony Liberatore, Prince George's administrator for supporting services, left, and Dale Krueger, management analyst, hope to update their technology.
CAPTION: Each piece of colored yarn on Roland Chew's map designates a school bus route. Officials hope a computer will replace the map.
CAPTION: In his office in Upper Marlboro, scheduler Roland Chew makes adjustments on his board of bus routes for the Prince George's County public schools.