D.C. school system leaders congratulated themselves when classes resumed Aug. 29, saying they had avoided the opening-day chaos of a year ago, when officials at Eastern Senior High School in Northeast Washington were unable to produce schedules for hundreds of students and three administrators were fired as a result.
But in the past three weeks, a less orderly picture of the new school year has emerged at several schools: students spending days in the auditorium or library because of scheduling mistakes; staff members working into the wee hours of the morning to correct bad data; principals filing attendance reports late; and computer response times so slow that in some cases, administrators and teachers have been unable to access the Internet for hours.
School officials are sorting out which of the problems are related to the installation of a new, $10 million computer system called D.C. STARS and which can be traced to other deficiencies in the school system's technological infrastructure. Either way, it has been a rough start to the school year for numerous students and employees.
The transition to D.C. STARS "has not been smooth," said a D.C. secondary-school principal who spoke on the condition that he not be identified because he feared his comments might get him into trouble. "One spends less time tackling the problems of learning and teaching and more time on facilities and computer glitches."
He added that principals are anxious because school system leaders are pressuring them to avoid another Eastern High fiasco but are not responding immediately to their pleas for help to solve the technological problems.
Some teachers expressed frustration, saying the problems are hampering their ability to meet one of the school system's new standards requiring them to integrate technology into the classroom. Barbara Lipscomb, who teaches English to ninth-graders at Francis Junior High School in Northwest, said students have been unable to access the Internet from the six computers in her classroom, restricting their ability to prepare reports and conduct research.
"Kids from private schools are tech-savvy," said Lipscomb, adding that Francis students last year had online access at least part of the time. "That kind of technology needs to be available for our students. They have to be able to compete."
D.C. STARS is designed to keep track of students' schedules, attendance, transfers, grades and graduation, generating records that in some cases had been compiled by hand.
The school system has had problems with other computer projects. Last year, school officials scrapped a computer program called PeopleSoft -- which was supposed to improve payroll, procurement and other business functions -- because they could not make it work despite $25 million in total expenditures over five years.
School board member William Lockridge (District 4) has asked Superintendent Clifford B. Janey to explain why D.C. STARS has had a troubled debut. "We need to find out from the superintendent why it didn't work like it should have," Lockridge said.
Gregory Barlow, who was hired a month ago as the school system's chief technology information officer, said in an internal memo that the hardware and the operating system being used to run D.C. STARS were "a bad combination."
But Barlow and other school officials insist that the software is fine and that many of the problems that schools have been having probably stem from antiquated wiring and outdated Internet connections.
The District's school buildings are 60 years old on average, and old electrical wiring can be problematic for any new technology, Barlow said. "When you bring in more [computer] users and add air-conditioning, it's easy to overload the system."
School officials also noted that only 41 D.C. public schools have high-speed, broadband Internet connections. The remaining 106 schools are using a technology called Switched Multimegabit Data Service that is nearly obsolete, Barlow said. "Verizon is getting out of the SMDS business. We're the last customer on it," he said.
The school board authorized D.C. STARS -- STARS stands for Student Tracking and Reporting System -- to replace a computer system that was deemed unreliable. School leaders said one reason they needed the new system was to help them comply with a provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act that requires school districts to calculate graduation and dropout rates.
Asked whether the school system should have improved its technology infrastructure before introducing D.C. STARS, school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz said: "If all the keys on a piano aren't working, you don't know until you start playing it. . . . I hope we use the problems we see with D.C. STARS to propel us to fixing the problems."
This week, the school board will vote on spending $169,125 for routers at 130 schools. The routers should help ease congestion on the computer networks and increase speed, said Barlow, adding that response times have improved because of adjustments made to a server last week.
School officials said they also are applying for at least $5 million in federal funds designated for school technology improvements. Cafritz said Barlow's predecessor failed to prepare a study required to apply for the funds.