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Data Integration 101: Taming the School Software Beast
Sarah Van Tiem

Independent schools have been drinking from the fire hose of information technology since before the century turned. Many hoses even—learning management systems, athletics information management, tuition payment plan systems, not to mention web analytics, e-newsletters. Even if they’re careful, schools face information overload.

How does a school community cope with different applications from different vendors?  Added to that basic complexity is the ever-changing student information and the need to share it across and within departments.


Consider this scenario: Sophomore Jane Smith moved in February. Of course, the front office needs her new address, but so do the field hockey coach, registrar and business office. Question: does each department know where Jane actually lives?

Student Information System (SIS) integration to the rescue! The phrase may not roll off the tongue, but the process is vital to a well-functioning school.  It ensures that Jane’s updated information flows from the “Master Database,” or “System of Record” e.g., Powerschool or Blackbaud On into the school’s other data repositories: Athletics Manager, Learn or other LMS, the advancement office, and so on.

Imagine if poor Ms. Banks in the front office had to manually update all of Jane’s information into three databases. What about Jane’s little brother, Michael? And their hundreds of classmates? Some adjectives that come to mind include: time-consuming, repetitive and soul-sucking.

As Finalsite Product Manager Dan Bonville says, “Good SIS integration is critical to an independent school’s day-to-day functioning. It saves so much time. Plus, if you can’t rely on the accuracy of your data, life gets complicated fast.”

SIS Integration isn’t a one-time affair either. SIS integration ensures that the desired information gets updated at regular intervals. Bonville, who has worked on Finalsite’s integration team for many years, says that data can be synced across the board in as little as one hour.

There are three kinds of integration: web services, datasheet-based or direct database connection. And there are two types of data most relevant: constituents (student, parent, teacher, etc.) and academic. Each kind of data is broken down into “data points,” or a discrete nugget of information. The “student” category alone consists of over thirty fields, such as first name, middle name, last name, nickname, initials…you get the point.

Some, perhaps, would feel a headache coming on. But not any of Finalsite’s talented team of Integration Specialists, who work with school staff to make sure the myriad details of the SIS integration fall not only into place, but into the right place.

Who handles the critical, complicated task of SIS integration on the independent school side? To whom do the digitally challenged usually turn when flummoxed by tech? (Besides our favorite teenager, that is.) We rely on the one with the magic-- school IT manager, director, webmaster. Without him or her, SIS integration won’t happen.

Like many IT professionals and superheroes, Chris Palombi at St. Mary's Ryken High School, Leonardstown, MD, lives a double life. He’s Webmaster and Director of Hockey Operations at this private Catholic high school.  The disparity in those titles indicates pretty well the breadth of his responsibilities.

Of course, it’s his tech skills Chris brings to bear in his school’s multi-faceted digital life. At last count, St. Mary's Ryken uses scads of programs, ranging from Finalsite’s suite of school software solutions (Learn, Apply, Composer, …), PowerSchool, Raisers’ Edge, down to good ole Microsoft Access in the front office.

St. Mary's Ryken was already a Finalsite true believer when Chris joined the staff five years ago. Shortly thereafter, the school added our Learning Management System, aka Learn. One of Chris’s first projects was to integrate Learn with Powerschool’s SIS.

There was other data to tackle too. The goal, says Chris, “Is always keeping everyone, parents, students, staff, tied into their information. The most current information.” It’s not always easy. While St. Mary's Ryken was using Finalsite’s Composer Athletics Manager module for example, but the athletics department was also using another athletic management platform. Double data equals double trouble.

So Chris plugged away at the Finalsite Athletics Manager tutorials to come up to speed on the module’s superpowers.  Once he was comfortable, he trained St. Mary's Ryken athletic director and all the coaches so they were comfortable too. Then it was game over for the other software. Digital life at St. Mary's Ryken Ryken was already getting more streamlined.

Still, says Chris, with addresses, grades, game dates and times, tuition and more—schools track a lot of details. Thanks to him and his compadres at Finalsite, though, data management at St. Mary's Ryken Ryken is well, manageable.  Chris also has compadres close at hand, Terry Wood and Jason DeLucco, dedicated staff who input data into the school’s master database.

The collaboration with Finalsite’s engineering services professionals doesn’t end when plans for the integration are finalized. Chris has been really pleased with the support he’s received. He calls Integration Specialists Matt LaCroix and Tyler Sivavec rock stars—“I submit a ticket and they get back to me within a couple hours.”

No doubt, SIS integrations are challenging. There are a lot of moving parts. And the one-way flow of information from the main student database means staff can’t update information just anywhere. Still, with the right team in place—outside and inside the school, SIS integrations make every day easier.

Learn more about Finalsite's Data Integrations

Sarah Van Tiem

Motor City Girl who: reads, writes & loves her three kids unreservedly; Also, gardening and proofreading. Believer in magic of all sorts.

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