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5 Simple PowerScheduling Tips for Creating a Better Master Schedule

For those of you who don’t know me, I am well-known as the crazy (but maybe slightly lovable) scheduling guy who has been flying all over the world for years to exotic and not-so-exotic locations to help schools build the best master schedules possible. I have a lot of stories I will share at some point, but I wanted to start blogging on my newly revised website with a topic that will directly make a positive impact on your approach and results in building next year’s master schedule – Five simple PowerScheduling tips for creating a better Master Schedule.

  1. Identify your priorities and start from there

Be clear about your priorities. If your highest priority is making sure that all students get their AP courses and Concert Band above all other courses, build them first! By default, when PowerScheduler is building the schedule it is looking at your schedule in its entirety, placing every section of EVERY course in the best spot possible for the most student requests to be satisfied, not necessarily just the requests for the “most important” courses. You CAN build your schedule incrementally. Turn off the “Schedule this course” flag on all your courses and ONLY turn back on your “important” courses (Like AP courses, or Year 1 or 2 IB courses, Concert Band) that are your highest priority. When PowerScheduler is building only these courses you will get the BEST, for example, AP or IB schedule possible (not taking into account all the other courses you have in your schedule). Once you have the best schedule possible for THOSE courses, you can LOCK those sections in place BEFORE turning on the rest of your courses. My next blog post will give you a few creative options on how to do this easily and efficiently, and examples from some of the schools I work with who have had success using this method.

  1. If anything is an absolute, lock it in!

The Pre-Schedule Constraint is your best friend. If Jazz Band MUST be period 1 in Music Room 107 with teacher Branford Marsalis, go ahead and preschedule it! When a section of a course is prescheduled, PowerScheduler doesn’t even have to “think” about it, it just does it. Anything that is an absolute should be prescheduled. So Greg, sounds interesting, but I have a question – “Isn’t going to the Course Preferences page of Jazz Band and saying the ONLY valid start period is period 1, and I’ve assigned Branford Marsalis that course, and his preferred room that matches this course is Music Room 107 doing the same thing as prescheduling it?” My answer is sort of, but not exactly. Yes, it will only be able to build this course section period 1 with the assigned teacher in the defined room. But, prescheduling the section of this course (which is an absolute) cuts down on the number of potential combinations of scheduling this and all other courses that PowerScheduler must calculate by deriving this information from Course Preferences on the fly, by having the information set up front instead. In a few words, it’s more efficient, worth the effort, and produces better overall results.

  1. Empower your students to determine their own “Plan B”

If students get to choose their own elective courses, why not let them choose their own alternates to those choices in case they don’t get them all? One way you can get a better overall load percentage (the percentage of students who get everything they requested) is allowing alternate elective choices to automatically take the place of unfilled primary elective choices during the load process. Alternate requests are a pool of course requests a student chooses that can potentially take the place of any of their elective type requests, only if needed.

  1. Work smarter, not harder

Simply put, let PowerScheduler do the work for you! I can’t even count the number of times I have seen people doing a lot of unnecessary manual scheduling work that could easily have been done by PowerScheduler. If you need to create 30 sections of Advisory in the Advisory Period, why not assign it to your teachers as a course and build the sections for you instead of creating them after the fact? If you need to assign collaborative and SPED teachers as co-teachers to sections of courses in the schedule, why not reserve them at the right times during the build process using a Course Team constraint instead of trying to figure it all out later (*Spoiler alert, it almost always never works out when you try to figure it all out later!). Use the Automated Study Hall function to find remaining holes in student schedules en masse and assign them to study hall sections at those times, automatically!

  1. “Because we always do it this way” is not the right answer to any question

Continually question why you have to do things the way you do them now. Ask yourself what doesn’t work well now, and how could you change it if you had the power to do so? When presented with a possibility of something that may be more efficient, easier to understand or dynamically resolves more issues than potentially creates uneasiness about change, don’t resist the change!

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments, or if there is anything I can do to help, please let me know!

PowerScheduler – It’s not just requests, it’s the type of requests!

Quite frequently I’m asked about what are some of the most important things that schools should be careful to do correctly while scheduling in PowerScheduler. My answer for years has been that one of the most important things is to make sure your Student Course Requests are flagged properly with the correct REQUEST TYPE. The REQUEST TYPE actually has NOTHING to do with the course itself, (how important it is, if it’s a graduation requirement, academic or elective) it’s HOW the request is HANDLED when you’re running the LOAD of student requests.

Here’s my take on the definition of the 3 types of request types of REQUIRED, ELECTIVE and ALTERNATE how they work:

REQUIRED – doesn’t mean really it’s required (for grad requirements or something like that), it simply means that if the student requested it, they should get it, and nothing else will AUTOMATICALLY take its place (unless there is a global substitution on the course, or direct Alternate for that course for the individual student)

ELECTIVE – means if the student requested it they should get it, BUT if they don’t it’s OK to use one of their ALTERNATE request type choices to automatically take its place

ALTERNATE – means don’t even consider these requests UNLESS you need one to take the place of an ELECTIVE type request (only) if the student doesn’t get it.

When you look at a student’s requests on the PowerScheduler -> Students -> Requests screen:

1. Anything with an “E” in the code field for a request is an ELECTIVE request type request (In the above example, Latin Prose, Art 2 and Silversmithing)

2. Anything with an “E” in the code field AND a check on the Alt box is an ALTERNATE request type request (In the above example, Beginning Piano and Guitar)

3. Anything with no code and no check is a REQUIRED request type request

In order for PowerScheduler to use the ALTERNATES, you must check the box “Use student course substitutes” when running the LOAD. If you don’t, it won’t use them!

Hope this helps. Happy Scheduling!

Schedule Build in progress, Clear the sawdust!

One of the great things about working with a web-based product is you can actually work anyplace you have a wireless internet connection. As I’ve learned many times before, a scheduling workshop does not have to be in a training room, computer lab or school conference room. On a recent visit to George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, Maine the only place available for the entire day for us to work uninterrupted on the 2012-2013 master schedule was the industrial arts teacher’s office. Well, I really shouldn’t say “uninterrupted”, since students were coming and going looking for various tools and pieces of projects in progress, but it was a place we could set up for the day.

Working in the industrial arts teacher’s office for the day

After brushing away some saw dust to make a space for my computer, and inspired by the unfamiliar surroundings of drill bits, wood glue and vises, I started thinking of all of the unusual places I’ve worked over the years with various school staff building schedules. Listed below (in no particular order) are some of the more memorable:

The lobby of the Homewood Suites I was staying in when the school district lost power. (Also many other hotel lobbies for similar/various reasons)

The patio of a Mexican restaurant on Cinco de Mayo

The loft of a chateau in Belgium

My kitchen table at home

Starbucks on Santa Monica Blvd/Hollywood (talk about distractions!)

Poolside (also in California)

Food court in a mall

The back of a FACS kitchen classroom while students were in class baking all day

Picnic table at a seaside seafood restaurant

An Irish pub

A German brauhaus

A fishing charter boat in Alaska

Although working in a traditional computer lab/training room setting is by far the norm, the exceptions that surprise me once in a while help make my vocation more rewarding and interesting than it already is! Any schools in Hawaii (or any tropical location, I’m not picky) need me for scheduling on a lenai next January?

International School of Brussels – A glimpse at some unique PowerSchool Challenges and Successes

Well, contrary to popular belief, I do actually work once in a while on my many trips all over the world. This past week I was working with the International School of Brussels, a Pre-K through Grade 13 private school in Belgium. Inevitably, one of the first questions I’m asked is if communicating with people at the school is a problem for me, and I tell them, yes. The people I work with are mostly Irish, Canadian, British, and of course the most difficult to understand, my fellow Americans! Seriously though, ISB is an English-Language instruction school for the most part, with opportunities for students to do class work in French, and learning in Dutch, Spanish, Japanese and many other instructed and tutored languages.

The ISB brain trust working away in the PowerScheduler War Room

Like all schools, one of the major challenges at ISB is developing a master schedule that works in a balance of offering as much quality and variety of curriculum/instruction as possible, with the right balance of time on learning, resources, common planning time for multiple combinations of teachers, manageable class sizes, and making everything available at times for students to be able to get as many of the courses they want or need to take. After 4 years of working with ISB, this particular year had some extra challenges – the High School is moving into a temporary building (that hasn’t been completed yet) with slightly fewer and for the most part smaller rooms. We had to find ways to define our information in PowerScheduler (the scheduling component of PowerSchool) to target sections of smaller courses to fill the smaller rooms, science courses to go to specific rooms but share with other courses, and medium-sized sections to medium-sized rooms in order to leave the larger rooms available for the courses that needed them. For all of you scheduling geeks out there, we actually built it all on the second run using a combination of course room constraints, preferred rooms, facility codes and department use onlys which were specific to the sizes and types of sections. Good stuff – let me know if you want to hear more about it! ; )

The Middle School had many of the same challenges, but more related to when everything got scheduled (and no new building/room issues!). Most people I know would think, it’s JUST a middle school, all the kids will get everything! The Middle School at ISB (Grades 7-9) has over 80 different courses, 11 different language courses/levels, 24 unique elective course choices, options for instruction in English or French in social studies and science, an intermediate, intensive and advanced ELD program, and 12 different math courses to choose from. After we programmed in all the constraints on the schedule, common planning time for multiple combinations of teachers, and students didn’t even have alternate course requests to take the place of primary choices if they didn’t get everything – we ended up with a student load of over 97%! Over 97% of middle school students got into EVERYTHING they requested – Not bad at all!

The High School Head admiring the Middle School Load %

Later this summer, I’ll blog a little bit more about the other unique PowerSchool-related projects I’m working on at ISB, including developing online report cards accessible directly by parents through the parent portal, the conversion of grading in the upper divisions from a traditional A-F grading scheme to a criteria based assessment model, and new tools for the elementary and early childhood divisions for capturing testing and assessment data for targeted analysis to improve learning strategies. If you’d like to know more about what I do, or how I can help your school, please let me know. Thanks for reading!

Riga, Latvia – A Welcome PowerSchool Diversion!

This past weekend (in-between weeks PowerSchooling and PowerScheduling with the International School of Brussels) I took a little side trip to Riga, Latvia. I opened up a little contest of sorts on Facebook with my friends, asking for suggestions where I should go that was within a 3 hour plane trip from Brussels – Jon Altbergs was the clear winner! I’ve always wanted to go to Riga, my wife’s mother and her family are from Latvia, and I was a Soviet/East European Studies major in university, so I figured it was time to look up some family sites and practice my Russian!

Riga is a beautiful city on the Daugava river in Latvia, an independent country on the Baltic Sea which regained it’s independence from the Soviet Union circa 1990. Latvia was caught between the Germans and Soviets 70 years ago during World War 2, which was also the time my mother-in-law as a youngster fled west with her family to escape certain tragedy. Over the last 20 years there has occasionally been talk in the family about going back, but understandably, there have been mixed feelings about it. I’m hoping my little visit to Latvia might break the ice and we can get everyone on board for a trip back next summer.

Riga first entered my consciousness as a little kid. Although I am not too much of a nerd (no comments!), I have always had a fascination with maps and history (I used to read the World Atlas and collect maps as young as 4-5 years old) and Riga to me was the city with ties to the Crusades, and located on the northeastern frontier (according to the maps) of the Hanseatic League trade routes (read about it) in the 14-15th centuries. I know, right now you’re thinking I must have been a freak of a kid, but I turned out to be a semi-normal, productive member of society. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoy going to all of the places I daydreamed about and I wasn’t disappointed in Riga at all.

Whenever I visit an older city (especially in Europe) my first inclination is to check out the sites of historical importance; old churches and cathedrals, castles and fortifications, and sites important to politics and commerce (like aforementioned Hanseatic League) that shaped the evolution of what these places are today. Riga was packed with cathedrals, churches, houses of commerce, castles, military barracks and fortifications going back to the middle ages. The city also has a bevy of interesting but dwindling soviet-era monuments and architecture which gave me a good fix of the era I studied at GWU back in the days of the Cold War.

The other interesting aspect of Riga is of a city geographically close to several other countries and cultures. Riga, although mostly inhabited by Latvians, also had a festive mix of Russians, Finns, Germans, Poles, Estonians and Lithuanians. It is funny sometimes how you can tell where people are from just by mannerisms and behaviors. As I was wandering around Riga taking photos of some of the sites, I could recognize the Latvians traveling around mostly as family units and really “soaking up” being in the city. I could tell they took a lot of pride in their city and wanted to make sure I would love it as much as they did.

The Russians really cracked me up. One story – You know how most people will snap a quick photo, or stand and smile for a photo next to a statue or some famous place? All over the place I was running into Russians (especially couples) where they would have to take 15-20 different photos in different model-like poses at every site like it was a photo shoot for Vanity Fair. Seriously, for them the location was secondary to the style and pose of person in the photo. I had to laugh, but I wasted a lot of time waiting for them to finish their lengthy sessions so I could click my one quick photo. And, as far as the Finns, I think it was their version of Vegas – what they did in Riga (and could still remember) stays in Riga!

My one minor failure on this particular trip was not being able to get to my mother-in-law’s childhood hometown of Jaunjelgava about 60 miles upriver from Riga. There was no train service and there was only one bus per day that arrived there at 4:00 in the afternoon and went right back to Riga – just not logistically possible. However, Jon Altbergs, the friend who suggested Riga in my little contest and whose family also came from Latvia sent me some tips of things to do and see in Riga from a cousin of his, and in the list of things to do she mentioned his grandfather’s house (and address) in Riga. It was fun to actually find his grandfather’s house and take a few photographs for him since he’s never been to Riga himself! That was definitely a win to do for him what I wasn’t able to do for myself on my mother-in-law’s behalf – We’ll have to do it as a family next year!

OK, back to work in Brussels now!

Virginia… PowerSchool, Coincidences and Surprises

I’ve always loved Virginia, the state that is! For years now on the way to visit family in SC my wife and I talk about how beautiful it is, how much we love it, and how great it would be to live there (dragging my wife away from Massachusetts is a whole other story!). One of my favorite parts of working here is driving all the backroads to various destinations to work with schools. I spent the last few days PowerScheduling in Goochland and Fluvanna, places you never would have known of if you didn’t have a reason to go in the first place. You’re missing out!

I discovered a while back that my GGGGGG-Grandfather was married in Goochland, VA in 1725 and there are still Satterwhites in the area today. It amazes me a little bit that 286 years later I am back in this rural county west of Richmond working with the K-12 schools. Life takes some interesting turns once in a while, and the surprises and coincidences keep the wonder alive. My GGGGG-Grandfather John Satterwhite moved to Newberry SC in the 1760s and that’s where most of my extended  family still lives to this day.

Fluvanna, besides having some of the nicest, friendliest people I know, is also the home of some of the best fried chicken I have ever had in my travels (food is kind of my thing). If you are ever driving down VA-Rte 15 through Palmyra, stop at the EW Thomas Grocery Store and follow your nose to the back counter. The place ain’t fancy, but you can get 4 pieces of tender & crispy heaven for less than $4. Folks in Fluvanna think I only agree to come back and work with them year after year for the chicken… No comment!

This afternoon I made my way from Fluvanna to Lynchburg to work with Bedford County schools for the rest of the week. One of the first landmarks I passed on the way was the Fork Union Military Academy (another school I work with). As a kid I remember their small advertisements towards the back of my Boy’s Life magazines and always thought it would be cool to go there! Well, I got my wish 35 years later when I got the call from them out of the blue and started helping them with scheduling in PowerSchool.

Further down the road (after a quick stop in Dillwyn for a treat at the Dairy Freeze) I passed through Appomattox, VA. Besides the obvious historical significance, this tree lined section of VA-24 is absolutely gorgeous. There is spiritual serenity to the place, and I can imagine (other than the quiet vein of asphalt winding through the hills and trees) that it hasn’t changed much over the centuries. The fact that I spent a LOT of time developing the most complex standards based report cards ever for this county doesn’t ruin it for me HAHA!

Next week… San Luis Obispo, CA

“I value his opinion and respect him as both a professional colleague and personal friend, and recommend him highly to any school considering his services.”

- Romy Backus,American School of Dubai

“Greg’s ability to translate a school’s need into a working solution in PowerSchool is magic.”

- Celinda Bailey,Madison County High School, Virginia

“People come away from his sessions with new insight, understanding and that “light bulb” experience. Greg’s calm and kind demeanor make him very approachable and easy to work with. We couldn’t recommend Greg’s services more highly.”

- Bridget Anderson,American School of The Hague