Schools supplied

Over the past decade, the national debate about school choice, educational

standards and computers in the classroom has done much to highlight the

fact that public schools can no longer get by on tax dollars alone.

Take, for example, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North

Carolina, which routinely seeks out hundreds of thousands of hours and dollars

from potential donors and volunteers within the surrounding community. They

need everything from reading tutors and computers to landscaping services

and security cameras.

Locating, obtaining and managing such resources is no easy task. With

140 schools and more than 100,000 students, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,

the 23rd largest district in the country, decided that it needed a technological

solution to what was essentially a logistical nightmare.

"In the past, if a particular school needed technology tutors, two staff

members would go out and drive in the neighborhood around the school looking

for companies or organizations that could supply that talent," said Debbie

Antshel, director of the Volunteers and Partnerships Department, which finds

resources for all schools in the district. "Then they'd come back downtown,

enter the information into a database and begin making phone calls. It was

very time-consuming and costly doing all the driving around."

Turning to the Mecklenburg County Information Services and Technology

(IST) Department for assistance, the school came up with a geographic information

system (GIS) to cut back on the miles. By linking to community and government

databases, the system, known as the School Partnerships Resource Locater,

allows staff to almost instantly identify potential partners and volunteer

sources located close to individual schools.

Now instead of driving around the county or using cumbersome overlay

maps, Antshel and her team simply type in the ZIP code of an individual

school and a resource keyword, such as landscaping services, and the application

immediately lists all vendors located within a chosen radius of that school.

"It used to take hours and days to get that information," Antshel said,

adding that previously one potential donor would cost an average of $155

plus mileage. "Now it takes seconds. And in the end, it really helps us

to focus our resources so that we can produce more partnerships with corporations

and community organizations in less time and at considerably less cost."

Developing the system had its challenges. Funding was one concern —

IST estimated it would cost $12,000. After several potential corporate sponsors

were approached, Bank of America, a longtime partner of the school system,

agreed to pick up the entire tab, which eventually cashed out at more than

$16,000.

But the most daunting hurdle was data collection, said Matthew Crisp,

a GIS analyst at the Mecklenburg County IST Department.

"We knew the data was out there," he said. "The problem was figuring

out who had it and what condition it was in."

Some coverage areas held by county agencies were relatively easy to

locate and tap, such as databases of county ZIP codes, neighborhoods, hospitals,

colleges and universities, police districts, libraries, churches, and state

and county legislative districts. But the most sought-after coverage — the

thousands of small businesses and corporations — proved the most difficult,

Crisp said.

"The problem was there was no spatially registered database of businesses

out there," he said. "So what we had to do was go to the tax department,

get the business license file and address, match it to get it spatially

registered and produce a GIS layer of the companies in Mecklenburg County."

In developing the application, Crisp said he always erred on the side of

simplicity and user-friendliness.

"Keep in mind that the Volunteers and Partners Department didn't own any

GIS software, so we had to create something for them that didn't require

them to own or purchase any GIS software," he said.

He used Visual Basic and MapObjects, a plug-in for Visual Basic from

Environmental Systems Research Intitute Inc. because together the two programs

could produce a familiar Windows-like appearance and a mostly point-and-click

application that the department staff would feel comfortable using.

The layout of the School Partnerships Resource Locater includes a map display,

a toolbar with pan/zoom capabilities and a text box for school identification.

Users can select a school by typing its name into the text box or clicking

on the map display.

The system provides staff with the ability to perform two distinct tasks.

The Resources tab allows people to search for a type of business by category,

as well as police stations, fire stations, libraries, churches and other

community organizations within the entire school district, within a specified

ZIP code or within a desired proximity of the school.

The School Reports tab, meanwhile, enables users to query the system

for schools with like needs or to perform a spatial analysis report on a

given school, including its ZIP codes, political districts, police districts

and chamber of commerce districts.

The latter allows easy access to resources for such Charlotte-Mecklenburg

school functions as "Walk in My Shoes" days, where county commissioners,

police chiefs and other community leaders spend the day with a teacher,

as well as the occasional community meeting.

"They might want to invite the state senator for that district or the

fire chief," Crisp said. "Now they have those government and community contacts

right at their fingertips. They don't have to go searching for it."

Despite the benefits of the GIS system, its ultimate value lies in the

fact that it's one part of an overall strategic plan, Antshel said.

In concert with the GIS system, her department also developed a Microsoft

Corp. Access database containing a "catalog of needs" that breaks down each

school's immediate requirements according to time, talent and treasure.

West Charlotte High School, for example, needs six math tutors (time), technology

employees who can speak to students about potential careers in the IT field

(talent) and $10,000 for pre- calculus and statistics software (treasure).

The database, now integrated with the GIS system, enables staff to prioritize

needs and, if a speaking or landscaping volunteer comes to them, to search

the district for all the schools in need of those resources.

This fall the school is unveiling its Data and Volunteer Tracking System,

which keeps tabs on all volunteer hours and donations.

"If a certain school needs five technology tutors and five sign up for

a semester, that will be immediately deleted from the school's needs, and

we can point the next resources to the next school on the priority list,"

Antshel said. "In addition, we can actually get back to, say, a tutor who

helped a student with the eighth grade computer competency test and let

them know if that student passed or not.''

The new system has already helped a lot with partnership development.

When the GIS system came online a year ago, the number of corporate

partners jumped from 400 to 650 almost immediately, Antshel said.

"We have a very generous community," she said, explaining that more

than 30,000 volunteers logged more than 600,000 hours of service to Charlotte-Mecklenburg

schools during the 1998 to 1999 school year.

"But a lot of corporations were hesitant to approach us because there

was no single point of entry and we weren't doing a good job of approaching

them,'' she said. "Now we have a very focused effort, and we can develop

those relationships and manage them so efficiently and effectively that

it's really making a difference."

—Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached

at hbhayes@cfw.com.

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