I'm putting the finishing touches on our school's master schedule for next year, tweaking class loads, optimizing student schedules, and otherwise getting ready to distribute schedules to students. This will be the first time that I've been able to get students their tentative schedules before the end of the school year since I started handling administration of our SIS and should give kids enough time to make changes with their guidance counselors before heading out for the summer.
For the previous four years that I've had the pleasure of scheduling the high school, we've either been embroiled in system transitions (we're on system number three of my tenure so far), dealing with dismal software (can anyone say Chancery SMS? I hope not), and/or scheduling around staff cuts. This year has been different, though, for a few reasons.
First and foremost, this is our second year of scheduling using the X2 Aspen SIS. I've reviewed it before and we've always been pleased with it, but this year the company has rolled out several optimizations in the scheduling module and it really rocks. Scheduling is never an easy process, but the module does a great job of creating an initial schedule based on student requests and allows the user to make changes to the schedule, reload students, and determine the effects on student schedules very rapidly. Our school is fairly small, so obviously the process won't be as snappy for larger districts; however, I can reload students and run reports within a minute after changing class sections in the master schedule. The scheduler also does a nice job of retaining enough information from previous years to reduce tedious setup tasks.
Fixing problems with individual students is also a breeze as the system highlights requests that weren't satisfied and provides an intuitive interface for the guidance counselors and administrators to make changes. A solid SIS goes a long ways towards reducing the pain of the scheduling process.
Secondly, our new guidance secretary has had the chance to train extensively in the new system and she and I were able to handle most of the upfront work without involving department heads, guidance, and administrators until much later in the process. Not until final decisions had to be made on staffing and particular course offerings did we have to call in the powers that be. This streamlined everything quite handily, but also made the data we provided to said powers-that-be much more useful so that they could make better decisions more quickly.
When it finally came down to making some tough choices today on what to offer and how best to satisfy a variety of needs (financial, academic, departmental, etc.), I brought out the spreadsheets I had dumped out of the SIS and was ready to pour over the data with guidance. We used to use a big 4x8 sheet of CDX with a grid from which we could hang tags representing every class in the schedule. I figured I'd modernize this year and dispense with the big remnant from our old wood shop. As we were all attempting to visualize the impacts our decisions would have across schedules and departments for the year, though, it quickly became apparent that even the best student information system can be nicely complimented by a really big piece of wood.
Out came the "big board" and, with my laptop beside it, we made change after change using visual cues from the board that were quickly translated into SIS records. Speedy reloads of the students in the SIS allowed us to determine how successful our changes were. This approach, which almost took on a rapid prototyping quality, meant that we had a schedule with which we were truly happy after about 5 hours. Compared to the multiple days and nights of years past, I think we're on to something.
Now if X2 can just build in collaboration tools and a screen that could be projected showing a "big picture" master schedule for the more visual learners among us, I think we could cut our time down even further.
Regardless, good SIS, good training, and good collaboration tools (even if they are old school) make for good scheduling.