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NC SIS conversion Archives - North Carolina Coalition for Charter Schools

Q&A with Erica Nielsen, Charter One’s Student Data Expert

By News

An expert on student information systems shares what parents and schools can expect from North Carolina’s conversion to Infinite Campus

Erica Nielsen is the student information systems (SIS) director for Charter One, an education management organization that partners with public charter schools in North Carolina as well as other states. She has extensive experience working with student data, and she currently serves on the steering committee for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) Phase One of SIS modernization efforts. 

Kristen Blair, the Coalition’s communications director, spoke with Erica to learn more about what parents and school leaders can expect with North Carolina’s upcoming SIS conversion to Infinite Campus. Conversion is occurring as a result of a state law, which mandates SIS modernization in the state’s public schools. (Read more about that here.) One-third of North Carolina’s public schools launched Phase One implementation in February and will use Infinite Campus for the upcoming 2024-25 school year. All other North Carolina public schools will convert from PowerSchool to Infinite Campus by July 2025.  

It’s great to talk with you! Could you tell us about your background, and how you became involved with student information systems?

Erica Nielsen is the SIS director for Charter One, an education management organization. Photo credit: Erica Nielsen.

Erica Nielsen: It’s all by chance. I worked in hospitality through my first degree, which was a BS in Health Promotion, and I carried two to three jobs for a very long time, one in education at a private school, ending up as the admissions director. I left to complete my master’s in educational leadership, later stumbling on an opportunity to work for an IT firm on CRM (customer relationship management) and Microsoft products, staffing, and software development. That’s when I learned that education is my passion. I stayed on with the IT firm part-time but decided to go back to education.

I looked specifically at American Leadership Academy (ALA). They were bold about leadership being part of their core values and combining this with excellent academics. I interviewed them seven times before I took the position! I eventually ended up on the student information systems team because of my background with software. I already had a lot of experience with data, and in a school setting, too. I ended up leading the department, and that was over 10 years ago. Eventually, we moved into Charter One as a management organization in 2017. We wanted to be able to provide charter school support anywhere—with our mission and vision. So, Charter One came about as a company, and I stayed on. I have been with Charter One this whole time, on the SIS side.

What drew you to the charter sector, specifically?

Nielsen: The biggest thing that stands out to me is the ability to have a choice. I was drawn to ALA specifically because of the leadership component and mission; those are the things that have kept me with the same company.

We don’t choose for families; they get to make the choice for education and we get to partner with them. That’s what has stayed with me all of these years.

What do parents and school leaders need to know as North Carolina prepares for its SIS conversion from PowerSchool to Infinite Campus? What are some of the key benefits and differences Infinite Campus will offer families and schools?

Families:

Nielsen: For parents, I’m really excited. I firmly believe Infinite Campus is a far superior system than any other student information system out there. It is more sophisticated with more capabilities, and it has more solutions. No system is perfect; I do recognize that. But in my experience with the different systems we have worked with, this is by far more robust.  What I’m most excited about for parents is that it’s a “one stop shop.” There’s a really easy way to log in to their parent portal. In PowerSchool, parents have to claim their kids and input all of these numbers on each of their kids—and then they can get their family all put together. To me, that’s a lot of work. The transparency that parents get with the parent portal in Infinite Campus is important. Making that streamlined and easier for them is going to give them the resources to be a partner in their student’s education.

A lot of this has to do with the contract DPI created. Infinite Campus has several modules that DPI put into the contract. When parents log in to the parent portal, they have access to grades, attendance, missing assignments—all of what they are used to. In addition, online payments, for example, are part of the contract. Parents can pay fees online through the parent portal as well. It’s almost like an Amazon account. They don’t have to log in to any other system.

The food service module with Infinite Campus is not part of the contract, but if schools implement that, parents can see their kid’s lunch account in the same portal—what they’ve eaten and their balance. They can add money to it. With different plugins over the years, PowerSchool has been able to have solutions, but with Infinite Campus, you don’t have data sync issues. You don’t have multiple vendors for parents to work through.

Schools, teachers, and staff:

On the staff side, DPI has done an incredible job with the contract they’ve created. They’ve included online registration, Messenger, online payments, the LMS (learning management system)—which helps with transferring grades back into the system from options such as Canvas. It really helps teachers and the implementation of academics inside the classroom. The LMS portion of the contract speaks very easily to software such as Canvas. In other states, we’ve had slim to no issues in configuring this for our teachers. With PowerSchool, it has been a really big hurdle. There are going to be some efficiencies in use. The gradebooks are really similar between systems, but there are some better features—it’s ease of access, the views teachers get across the gradebooks. Teachers are definitely going to see an improvement, and I think they will be better equipped.

For the rest of the staff, online registration (OLR) really helps data flow more easily into the system. OLR is a huge component in Infinite Campus that’s going to create a lot of efficiencies. Staff can run transactions at the front desk, parents can pay online—providing ease of use for managing fees and lunch accounts. Messenger is another product in the contract; it’s all real time and it’s all live. When a student comes into the system, there’s no synching that needs to take place. Schools are going to benefit from efficiencies, ease of use, and access to data. I’m excited for staff and what they’ll be able to utilize. It will create a lot of good processes, and it will be faster so schools can take care of the kid in the seat instead of being stuck in administrative processes.

Broadly, what sorts of data does the Department of Public Instruction collect about students, and how are data points used?

 Nielsen: There isn’t anything personal. It’s all statistical data used for growth and performance. Every state has the same goals: How can states better improve their educational systems and track their money? The data they pull is demographic, grade level, and end of year assessments. That’s to identify growth; it’s more about the specific student population rather than individual students. You’ll get a lot of subcategories in there as well, as far as performance and resources.

Those are the data points they’re collecting to help with performance and growth metrics—where you get your school report cards, your graduation rates, dropout rates. Other data points? It’s always funding—making sure the funds are being managed. Every state has a unique way of managing funding and distribution among the schools. Again, it isn’t personal—it’s about each enrolled student and how that funding is going to work.

There is never personal identifying data going back and forth, which is why there are unique identifiers. It’s like your Social Security number; you’re a number. It isn’t about an individual student. It’s about being able to identify growth and progress for the schools and for the state.

How secure is student information?

Nielsen: I love that question. It’s based on the integrity of the organization. I do believe DPI has a lot of integrity and confidentiality in making sure there is a lot of awareness and they’re tied up tight in security. Actually, that is part of the reasoning that Infinite Campus is a better system—they have more integrity with their system than I’ve seen with others, and there are a lot more controls in place that secure data and ensure it stays secure. That’s going to be a benefit for DPI in making sure there’s that security. It comes down to the schools ensuring they follow best practices and that they’re in compliance.

Each organization needs to be aware and progressive in using resources to ensure data security is always there. DPI has that goal. I’ve absolutely seen it from Infinite Campus. I’m confident in our organization. It’s going to be up to the schools to make sure they uphold their side of it.

You’ve been involved in the recent Phase One implementation of Infinite Campus, which launched in February. Could you share your experience with Phase One and your key takeaways as schools prepare for SIS conversion?

Nielsen: A third of the state is moving in Phase One, which will involve a lot of learning for everyone. Phase Two will have some improvements that would have been done in Phase One, had people known. This is a big lift moving an entire state from one system to another. The preparation that schools really need to process through is this: Now is the time to be perfect and accurate with your data. That will make transitioning from one system to another much cleaner and easier to sift through. Trying to clean it up at the last minute or not paying attention to certain data points will bog the process down.

In addition, we can put any system in, but if we don’t utilize training, it won’t matter what system we have. People don’t need to understand the entire system; they need to be very proficient in the area they manage. That’s a big focus. We’ve worked with Infinite Campus over 10 years; they are very knowledgeable on their product and care about the end user experience. They’ve got a lot of great programs and training material, which will help schools prepare. Training will play a huge part in helping to alleviate people’s fears about a new system.

Is there anything I didn’t ask that you think is an important part of this conversation about student data?

 Nielsen: This is such a huge transition. The state has everything from a little charter school—that has to do this on its own, without the backing of a district or education management organization—all the way to a major district or EMO with incredible talent within its teams. DPI is doing its best to keep everything coordinated and keep lines of communication open.

So, take advantage of that and the resources DPI is putting together, in addition to what Infinite Campus has always done really well. Be open-minded and unafraid. That will make it a better experience. Charters—all the way up to district schools—are going to benefit. I am really excited to see this change for North Carolina!