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Students and parents tend to get a bit anxious whenever school report cards are pending.

However, last month the fretful wait was extended by at least a week because of what DODDS officials termed “growing pains” with a new computer student data system that was implemented a few months ago.

The Department of Defense Education Activity says most of the problems should be ironed out by the end of January.

“We’ve gotten over a lot of the bumps in the road,” said Frank O’Gara, spokesman for DODEA, DODDS’ parent organization headquartered in Arlington, Va. The new computer system “is kind of a work in progress.”

But some teachers, counselors, nurses and registrars of the Department of Defense Dependents Schools, Europe, aren’t as diplomatic. Words such as “turkey” and “white elephant” have been bandied about in describing Student Management Solution, the new data system.

The problemsSeveral DODDS employees who discussed the problems declined to be identified for this story for fear of retribution. One talked about being reassigned to Iceland, while another spoke of senior administrators who are absolutely intolerant of even the slightest criticism. A third said those in power have “long memories.”

“I’m not throwing stones at anybody,” said one teacher at Würzburg High School in Germany, “but we’ve got problems with it.”

That much is indisputable, based on several interviews with DODDS personnel in Europe. Even Joseph D. Tafoya, the director of DODEA, the parent agency, acknowledged the problems.

In a September memorandum to employees, Tafoya expressed his gratitude for the way employees have admirably worked around the challenges and supported one another “while awaiting critical upgrades” to the SMS system.

“We deeply regret that the implementation has not gone as planned,” Tafoya wrote. “In fact, it has not worked nearly as well as we had hoped that it would and has added to the already busy workload of teachers and staff. The growing pains are frustrating for all.”

Why the quick switch?Some educators interviewed wonder why officials didn’t go with a pilot program prior to implementing the system worldwide.

When Win School, the previous computer data system, was introduced seven years ago, officials phased it in over three years. However, there were some early bugs to work out.

Richard Gamble, who is guiding the transition for DODDS, said officials considered a phased-in approach, but opted to implement the SMS system all at once. Gamble said a gradual transition wasn’t possible because the data system, which covers information such as grades, attendance and health records, was being structured differently, going from a Windows-based program to a Web-based application.

The decision to go with SMS was made in January, Gamble said, and officials had to hustle to get it ready by August.

DODEA made the switch this year, Gamble said, because Win School was in need of a hardware upgrade that would have cost DODDS-Europe about $1.68 million to cover the 43,000 students who attend its 112 schools.

Chancery, the same company that devised Win School and other related systems, created SMS. However, the contract DODEA has is with Consulting, Services and Solutions Group Inc. in Fairfax, Va., O’Gara said. In a written response, he likened the arrangement to “buying a car from a dealership instead of directly from the manufacturer.”

The next five yearsIf DODEA sticks with the system for the duration of the contract, which covers five years, the total cost would be about $7.4 million, according to O’Gara.

Gamble said one of the problems is connectivity with telephone lines. Another was the need for several significant upgrades, major and minor. The tweaks represent enhancements to the system, though they have kept users from learning how to fully exploit the SMS package. School nurses, for example, have had some SMS training but the majority of them “had to go back to paper” files to keep track of any new health data, said Cheryl Jenkins of Bitburg Elementary School in Germany.

“We can’t even feel the growing pains, because we’re not playing with the program,” said Jenkins, a school nurse.

Perhaps the greatest impact has been on registrars, who are entrusted with the often-thankless job of inputting much of the student data.

Small improvementsChristine Maxwell, a registrar at Wiesbaden Middle School, typically spends six to seven hours a day working with the SMS system. She has used only SMS, since she started working at the school this year.

“I know there is frustration among the teachers,” Maxwell said, “but I think it’s because they don’t work with it.”

In the first couple of weeks, the SMS system “would go down quite a bit,” she said. Maxwell was told there wasn’t enough bandwidth to accommodate the new system, but since then “it has gotten 100 percent better.”

“I’ve been happy with it for the last couple of weeks,” she said. “It’s moving a lot faster.”

Which probably means report cards for the second quarter will be a bit timelier. For some students, that development may make them long for that earlier reprieve.

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