Delivering Critical Advantages to Special Education Programs
About thirty years ago, Congress assured access to free and appropriate public education to youngsters across America with a variety of physical, mental and emotional disabilities. The special education programs that were born thanks to that act of Congress have grown to serve millions of students nationwide with specially designed instruction designed to meet their unique needs.
Beyond the classroom teaching itself, there is an enormous amount of work that goes into creating individual education programs (IEPs) for these students such as tracking students’ progress and complying with government regulations. That translates into the collection, analysis and storage of an immense volume of data and the generation of countless reports.
Faucette Micro Systems, Inc. (FMS) focuses its development efforts on providing the most comprehensive and easy-to-use special education software available. The company currently concentrates its activities in California where there are about half a million special education students. To that end, FMS has developed a family of special education products known as the SELPA System II. The Advantage Database Server from Sybase iAnywhere powers this client-server software system.
Multiple Platforms, Databases and Applications Hamper Efficiency and Accuracy
“We work primarily with entities called Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs),” explains Doug Faucette, Vice President of FMS. “These SELPAs typically include one or more school districts or county education offices that choose to join together in planning and delivering special education services for children within their boundaries. A good example of this is the work we’re doing with two SELPAs in Santa Clara County in California.”
Santa Clara County, located in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, is home to 32 school districts that together serve approximately 30,000 special education students. Over the years, the Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE) and the county’s two SELPAs implemented a number of disparate database systems designed to track and manage the needs of the county’s special education students, and to report on their progress to state and federal agencies.
Ultimately, they found themselves with an enterprise comprising numerous platforms, databases, and applications that had multiple points for data entry and that required extensive human intervention to move data from one point to another and to prepare required reports. They knew they needed to revamp their systems to streamline processes and ensure more accurate and easily referenced data.
To help them achieve these objectives, they turned to FMS.
“When we began working with the SCCOE and the two SELPAs, they had five or six disconnected databases that weren’t talking to each other,” Faucette recalls. “There were multiple homegrown applications, each with its own database. There was a lot of duplicate data entry – it was typical to find an individual student’s data in each database, and the databases seldom, if ever, agreed with each other. The bottom line was that there was an enormous amount of duplication of effort and there were a lot of inaccuracies that made it very difficult to track students as they moved from grade to grade, teacher to teacher and even district to district. Compliance with federal reporting requirements was also quite a challenge, given the disconnected nature of the various systems.
“We knew we needed to find a way to consolidate all of the data in one database and to enable teachers and administrators to enter, access and report on data using one application linked to a single database.”
Additionally FMS knew it needed to migrate the existing Clipper-based, stand-alone systems to a client-server environment. To do this, FMS created the SELPA System II. This involved rewriting the various existing applications in Delphi and choosing a client-server database engine – preferably one that could support the existing DBF file format.
Advantage Database Server “Perfect for Our Needs”
After researching the options, FMS chose Advantage Database Server from Sybase iAnywhere.
“Advantage was perfect for our needs,” says Faucette, “because we could keep the existing data structure. Advantage sat right on top of the DBF files and we didn’t have to make major changes to the data structure. The existing database files could stay largely the way they were. That was one of the key features that sold us on Advantage. Another was the fact that the Advantage Internet Server provided secure communication between remote clients and the database server. The Advantage Local Server feature was another plus, as it allowed remote users to access frequently used tables directly on their PCs. This ability to mix and match connection methods within the same application enabled us to achieve very good performance. Users could access the database via the Internet, the organization’s WAN or directly on their local PCs.”
The result – SELPA System II – is a powerful, efficient, and cost-effective tool that meets the reporting requirements of California SELPAs and significantly simplifies administrative tasks. The Advantage master student database features an easy-to- navigate user interface for inquiries and updates. Predefined reports allow quick and easy access to a wide variety of information. The system can also enables teachers and other special education professionals to generate IEPs on the Web. IEPs can be prepared, validated, completed and stored online, without repetitive data entry. Teachers and professionals have access to the student information and can update their assigned sections of the IEP. When an IEP team comes together for an IEP meeting, the information each team member has entered is in the same database. This enables the team to easily update, revise and finalize the IEP.
SELPA System II: A Closer Look
SELPA System II has grown since its initial implementation to include a number of function-specific modules.
Its core module – District Access – contains the master student database, which is the Advantage Database Server on an IBM eServer xSeries 235 running Netware. This module provides users the ability to view, update and generate reports on special education students. District Access includes a user-friendly, tabbed interface, more than 100 pre-defined reports, a report writer for custom report design and the ability to directly interface with the State of Calfornia’s Department of Education CASEMIS software.
The Advantage Database Server enables District Access users to communicate via IP over a wide area network from local or remote sites. This allows them to update the student database live, yet do so in a secure and efficient manner, employing Advantage’s packet encryption and compression.
Additional SELPA System II modules include:
- WebIEP – a generic Web-based IEP system that allows special education teachers and other personnel to use the state IEP templates or customized forms developed by regional SELPAs. Data from completed IEPs can be transferred into the master student database using the “Transfer IEP” program
- WebDA – a Web-based version of District Access data entry
- Low Incidence Equipment – an equipment inventory module for tracking equipment assigned to special education students
Substantial Results and Flexibility for Continuous Improvement
“I honestly can’t think of another database that could have brought us from where we were to where we are now without requiring a complete, massive rewrite of the application. We like the fact that Advantage enabled us to consolidate the five or six existing databases without having to change the existing data structure. The ability to provide access to student data via the Advantage Internet Server and the Advantage Local Server is very useful and quite unique. Advantage also provides a broad range of platform support, security and scalability, which gives us the flexibility to make continuous improvements to our SELPA System II without having to do any major re-engineering. For example, initially, we were not using any SQL functionality. Gradually, however, we’ve been adding SQL functionality and taking advantage of various APIs to make application improvements. I just can’t think of another database that would have allowed us to do all of this. And as Advantage continues to evolve, we will continue to take advantage of new features and functionality.” Faucette cites Advantage’s replication capability as one example of functionality that will soon be incorporated into SELPA System II.
FMS’ clients in Santa Clara County are very pleased with the Advantage-powered SELPA System II. Teachers report dramatic time savings, for example, in creating IEPs. A special education teacher with 28 students reported a reduction of two hours administration time per IEP, amounting to a savings of 50 to 60 hours per year.
The consolidation of the previous multiple databases into the single Advantage database has made reporting much easier and more accurate, which in turn has enabled Santa Clara County’s Office of Education to secure the maximum government funding possible for special education programs and equipment. The Office of Education has also realized substantial savings in labor costs due to the system’s single point of data entry and centralized data management.
“From the perspective of Santa Clara County,” says Linda Hildebrand, Education Program Analyst, SELPA, Santa Clara County Office of Education, “the Advantage Database Server-powered SELPA System II has enabled a more extensive level of integration than we expected at the project’s inception. Initially, Advantage was implemented to address a single challenge. Now, it has been expanded to cover an ever-growing number of data distribution and utilization issues. The possibilities seem endless as Advantage continues to support the development of multiple extensions in order to serve more and more of the data flow challenges we face.”
“In addition to everything else,” adds Faucette, “the incorporation of Advantage Database Server into our SELPA System II has made our company and our product offerings more competitive, which, of course, is very important to us.”