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Mixed reviews for School District’s FOCUS student tracking system


A half-million-dollar student information tracking system called FOCUS put in place a year ago by the Indian River School District so far has gotten mixed reviews.

With the new system, information showing student progression and teacher adherence to the Florida Standards is available in real time to administrators, teachers and families. Nightly, parents can see if a teacher assigned homework, and if their child did yesterday’s assignments. If your child skipped school, expect a robo-call from FOCUS.

The parent portal shows good activity, with as many as 6,400 parents logging into it monthly. Some parents checked their child’s classes 50 times a month, said Technology and Assessment Assistant Superintendent Bruce Green, who recently updated the school board on how the district is adapting to the new system.

When FOCUS launched, hardware-heavy servers only a few people could access loaded with 20 years of data were replaced with a web-based system that stores information in the cloud. Green said the savings on hardware alone is about $25,000 a year, and the increased efficiency of information transfer is incalculable.

FOCUS School Software is a St. Petersburg company that has contracts with 43 of the state’s 67 school districts.  The company’s success in the Florida market is partly due to software developed to find reporting errors related to the Byzantine state funding formula.

When calculated and totted up, the state disburses money based on the number of “full-time-equivalent students” in the district. If reporting is erroneous, it can cost districts big money – and there is a narrow window of time in which a district can correct reporting errors.

Indian River County School District is currently waiting on a $1 million payment related to corrections from last year.

The demands of the Common Core education framework, renamed Florida Standards after legislators made minor changes for political reasons, has also made a responsive and flexible student information system more important. FOCUS employs at least one state reporting specialist and is aligned with the state program that homogenizes education goals, helping teachers be confident they are teaching to state standards.

Common Core/Florida Standards do not come with a corresponding curriculum and FOCUS correlates lesson plans and report cards to the standards. District and teacher evaluations are based on Common Core test results, so staying standard-focused has become imperative.

The district spent about $500,000 to implement the program last school year and will pay about $100,000 each year to maintain it. The system was rolled out with 60 FOCUS-led and 40 district-led training sessions last year, Green said. Workshops were, and still are, being offered and a FOCUS hotline has been set up.

“We didn’t do a staff survey last year because we got a lot of feedback,” Green said, indicating there was the usual discomfort associated with such a big change. Feedback will be sought this year.

School board member Charles Searcy said he has gotten complaints from teachers that the system was hard to use.

A Texas teacher who has used FOCUS for four years, Rhonda O’Brien, said FOCUS helped her students get into college. Seeing their school rank go up and down motivated them, knowing that “universities base everything on quartile combined with SAT/ACT scores.”

But psychologist and author of “Teach Your Children Well,” Madeline Levine, calls big student information systems “Power Snoop.”

Instead of students finding their passion and intellectual spark, “It turns every act of learning into a performance,” Levine said. “We’re ignoring best practices in child development and saying what we do care about are grades.”