SIF Progress Report

It won’t be much longer before K-12 schools can breathe -- or at least juggle administrative tasks -- a little easier. The widely anticipated SIF project, formally known as the Schools Interoperability Framework, has been steadily developing. In fact, it’s expected to make its debut in schools in early 2002.

Once available, SIF will enable diverse software applications to interact and share data, regardless of platform. For example, SIF will allow software applications containing student demographics, attendance information, library information, grades, and more to share information. As a result, redundant data entry will be reduced, and ultimately, student achievement will rise.

Easing Complicated Data Management

SIF, an initiative launched to simplify the information management needs of K-12 schools, was launched by Microsoft and a handful of K-12 software vendors in 1997. In 1999, the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) took over the initiative as an independent party. Today, 107 software vendors, state departments, and professional associations are working together to bring an official SIF technical blueprint to market.

Ten working groups were established to define the data that need to be standardized and include the areas of Infrastructure, Student Information, Curriculum, Cafeteria, Gradebook, HR/Financials, Library, Reporting/Data Warehousing, Transportation, and CIRCA (Customer Involvement Requirements Communications and Accords).

Specification Testing and Official Release

Ramsey Elementary School in Anoka-Hennepin Independent School District 11, Anoka, Minn., became one of the first pilot sites in 1999. Using a Microsoft Windows NT server, software based on Windows DNA and a preliminary SIF specification, Ramsey was able to integrate three different applications. Their student information system, SASIxp from National Computer Systems, was integrated with Follett Software Company’s v4.0 Circulation PlusĀ® and Catalog PlusĀ® library automation software and WinSNAP, a SNAP Systems cafeteria management product.

The v1.0 SIF specification was released last June. Since then, a total of four showcase sites have been testing the specification. At the same time, software vendors have been building their products to the specification. These activities have generated vital feedback, which the SIIA has been incorporating into a second “official” version of the specification, due out this July/August.

To ensure the SIF initiative stays on course, SIIA has focused time and resources on a number of issues while fine-tuning the revised specification. “Right now we’re focused on compliance testing so that we can make SIF available to the broad market,” says Patrick Plant, Director of Technology Services at Anoka-Hennepin School District and SIF Initiative Interim Director. “We expect to release the first version of compliance testing later this fall.”

To market their products as SIF-compliant, vendor applications must undergo compliance testing once the revised specification is released. Those products designated as SIF compliant 1.0 will be interoperable.

SIF in Action

Each of the four SIF showcase sites (see sidebar, p. 53) has a working model of SIF in place and all have experienced the power of the SIF initiative. Showcase sites include Ramsey Elementary School (Anoka-Hennepin School District, Minn.), Ocoee Middle School (Orange County School district, Fla.). Copperwood Elementary School (Peoria Unified School district, Ariz.), and Upper Dauphin Area School District (Penna.).

Ocoee principal Katherine Clark confirms, “When we first heard about SIF, we could see that it had strong application to improve critical functions in the education process. It would help self-conscious middle school students fit in more easily, enhance efficiency, relieve frustration for staff members, encourage parents to get more involved, and save time and money throughout the school. All of these are factors that we believe will lead to improved student performance.”

Patrick Plant has been involved with the project in various modes since its infancy. Plant states, “At Anoka-Hennepin’s Ramsey Elementary School, we demonstrate that SIF is real -- and works for us on a daily basis.” In fact, in late 2000, Plant took the reins of the SIF initiative as its interim director and has been extremely pleased with its development.

“SIF is an extremely complicated project, yet we have kept a pace equal to or better than similar initiatives,” he remarks. “We’ve experienced a strong sense of cooperation and commitment among vendors.”

When Will Schools Benefit?

Plant anticipates that technologically savvy sites will begin benefiting from SIF in early 2002, once zone integration servers become available. He estimates that 100 schools will have come aboard by spring and many more during summer, while another group will hold off until the specification matures.

“I envision many taking a slow, calculated approach,” says Plant. “Districts will likely pilot SIF in a single school or a few schools at varying levels. Then they will need to think about their long-term relationships with their current vendors and how much they will need to modify their infrastructure in order to benefit from SIF district-wide.”

Plant suspects that districts will begin mandating SIF-compliant products for RFPs, spurring many additional vendors to join the SIF initiative in the coming years.

Cooperation a Key Factor to Success

As SIF nears the finish line, it’s important to note an essential factor that has contributed to the success of the initiative -- the interaction and participation among the many members of SIF. “Working with so many vendors has certainly been a challenge,” says Plant. “Vendors who usually compete have displayed a truly cooperative spirit. I believe that’s helped us achieve more tangible results than most other groups ever have. We’ve all learned that you have to strike a balance and give reasonable, mutual benefit to every decision. It’s very similar to what school administrators do every day. We’ve also had great involvement from the showcase sites and many schools.

“While education is often criticized for being slow-moving, even lethargic, the SIF initiative demonstrates how we can bring technology innovation to market quickly. It’s an outcome of our strength at collaboration,” he adds. “And it demonstrates that tenacity, the right players, and a belief in what many believed was unachievable could prevail.”

For more information about the Schools Interoperability Framework, please visit .

Celeste Sentman is the editor at Follett Software Company.

Showcase Schools Demonstrate SIF Progress

Four showcase sites are in the process of giving the Schools Interoperability Framework its test drive, and SIF is going through a lot of tire kicking before it hits the open road. The success of the project, however, will bring the ultimate payoff -- the efficient handling of the volumes of data accessed and used by schools daily.

Each site is in a different phase with the SIF project, ranging from the full installation of the zone integration server (ZIS) software, to still testing vendor application compliance with the early version of SIF. The official published release of SIF version 1.0 is expected to be voted upon and adopted by August.

Ocoee Middle School (Florida)

The 1,300-student Ocoee Middle School, in the Orange County Public Schools district, went through full installation of its ZIS in November 2000 and has been using the preliminary version of the SIF 1.0 software. Kate Clark, Ocoee Middle School’s principal, says the school first became involved in the SIF project following discussions with Microsoft representatives at a Florida Educational Technology Conference several years ago.

The school’s ZIS is installed at the OCPS district office with an eye to taking the program district-wide in the future, says Clark. She also notes that they hope to add one of the district’s high schools to the program during the next year.

Currently, Ocoee has interconnected its student enrollment, student scheduling, gradebook, attendance, library, and lunch program systems through SIF, with bar-coded student identification cards linked to SIF for the lunch and library systems. Security data, for access to the campus’s buildings, will be added shortly.

According to Clark, some inherent bugs had to be worked through. One district server had to be replaced because it wasn’t powerful enough to handle the information needed. Also, they ran into some problems with SIF being able to handle pictures and had to identify additional objects that needed to be included. Some modifications also were required in their Open District software student data program to accept data from the School Link lunch program software.

“Now, we have information flowing seamlessly. The data accuracy is much better,” says Clark. “Whenever we enter a student into the system, we are saving at least 35 minutes per student enrollment entry.” She adds that the personnel time saved can be redirected to provide a higher level of help and service to teachers and parents.

Ramsey Elementary School (Minnesota)

In the Anoka-Hennepin Independent School District in suburban Minneapolis, Ramsey Elementary, with an enrollment of approximately 1,200 students in grades K-5, was one of the first sites testing SIF. It recently underwent on-site installation of the ZIS and hardware, using SIF version 1.0x, and expects to be operating under the final published version by the beginning of the 2001-02 school year.

Patrick Plant, director of technology services for the district and interim director of the SIF initiative, says the post-installation testing revealed that they had to work out difficulties with getting one of the SIF-designated applications to “talk” to the ZIS. Also, some non-SIF components of applications were interfering with communication between the applications’ SIF-compliant components and the ZIS.

Plant seems to take those hang-ups as part of the package, adding that you really don’t test things “until you put them into application in the real world.”

Initially, Ramsey Elementary was running SIF alpha version 0.9, which Plant says was the “proof of concept” version, through which the school’s student data system and library automation system were interconnected. The school’s PhoneMaster system is being added this summer.

From what he has experienced so far, Stan Peichel, Ramsey Elementary’s principal, sees the benefits of SIF well into the future, adding, “This is something we need to look at district-wide.” Data input time has been reduced and data accuracy increased because information has to be entered only once, he notes.

Within the next two years, Peichel expects that parents will be able to access information about their children’s attendance, test scores and grades, the school library books they’ve taken out, and lunch fund balances, via the Internet or telephone system with a specially assigned PIN number.

Peichel says that, to see educational benefits from the program, they still need to develop a usable format for interpreting student data to aid in drawing conclusions about what, how -- and why or why not -- students are learning. “That way, we should be able to make better decisions about our children,” he explains.

Peoria Unified School District (Arizona)

Within the next few weeks, Copperwood Elementary School will be the site of the first full implementation of the SIF program in Arizona’s Peoria Unified School District, says Hank Stabler, administrator for information management and technology. He adds that the program is expected to be put into use later for the entire 33,000-student district, the fourth-largest in the state. Peoria Unified School District has 27 K-8 elementary schools and five high schools.

Initially, SIF will incorporate the school’s SASIxp student information system, the library automation system, and the automated telephone dialing system, with other data systems to be added later.

Stabler, who has been involved with the SIF project since the initial 1997 summit with Microsoft Corp., says discussions between school and Microsoft representatives centered around the problems with “managing enterprise-wide programs.” He adds that Microsoft wanted to hear about what the schools needed and to explain what the company was looking at developing.

The benefits to the district, according to Stabler, will be eliminating the inefficiency of multiple data entries previously required for each data system and the errors resulting from those multiple entries.

Upper Dauphin Area School District (Pennsylvania)

Getting SIF up and running in the Upper Dauphin Area School District is still in the waiting stages for completion of the server, says Bryan Campbell, the district’s technology coordinator. Located near Harrisburg, the district comprises 1,400 students and two physical buildings, one housing the elementary and middle school complex, the other its high school.

The district’s size was one of the selling points for its inclusion in the SIF program, explains Campbell. Upper Dauphin is of the average small size of most of Pennsylvania’s school districts.

According to Campbell, the district is in partnership on the SIF project with the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit (CSIU), a regional education service agency and one of 22 such intermediate units in the state. The CSIU, which will house the ZIS, wrote the program for student demographic data and faculty information and is the district’s application hub. They have been involved in the SIF program since the fall of 2000.

Judith Barnett, project director at the CSIU, says they have been doing some in-house testing and on the Web with Sun Microsystems, which is providing the server. Tests are being run using the Follett library system.

Some of the problems the testing has identified deal with “certificates,” the method of authenticating the agents accessing and posting information through the ZIS, as well as the encryption of data. All of this is taking longer than anticipated.

Testing, Barnett quips, has been a bit difficult because it involves three time zones, since Sun Microsystems is in California, Follett in Illinois, and Upper Dauphin in Pennsylvania.