Future Tense

When School Registration Software Fails at the Worst Possible Time

Parents get angry.

Stressed parent looking at laptop with their child.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

This article is part of Update or Die, a series from Future Tense about how businesses and other organizations keep up with technological change—and the cost of falling behind.

On the morning of May 1, Bobby Kaplow felt tense. He was waiting for the online registration system for Arlington Public Schools’ extended day programs to open. There was limited space available for students in this Northern Virginia community, so thousands of parents would be flooding the website. Kaplow was hoping to snag a spot for his kid, but he was more worried about whether the system would be able to handle the coming stampede.

As the director of the district’s extended day programs, he wanted to make sure that parents weren’t going to run into the same glitch as the previous year, when issues with the server’s capacity brought the system to a standstill because too many people were trying to register at the same time. Parents, many of whom rely on the aftercare service due to their work schedules, were furious at the crash. “I was up until 2 trying to get on before giving up,” one “angry parent” wrote in an email to local news site ARLnow. “So I’m at work today with only 4 hours of sleep.”

Arlington Public Schools had been working for eight years with the Cirrus Group, the vendor that supplied software for aftercare programs in 29 different schools in the district. To prevent a repeat of the breakdown, Kaplow said he had been checking in weekly, if not daily, with the company in the runup to the registration period. A school district typically either designs its own software or buys it off the shelf from a vendor that then tailors it to the district’s needs. That might include increasing the system’s capacity or reworking the interface for choosing schools.

Mark Racine, the chief information officer for Boston Public Schools, says that these products began seeing widespread adoption about four or five years ago. “A lot of things are moving online, and so parents were looking for online options too,” he said. Beyond programs offered by the Cirrus Group, popular registration systems include SchoolMint, Registration Gateway, and Skyward. Some of these companies, like Skyward, have been around for decades and evolved to keep up with technological advances. Others, like SchoolMint, were founded in the past few years as registration processes have become increasingly digitized.

Even though the Cirrus Group’s product had failed spectacularly once before, Kaplow decided against switching to another option. “We’d worked with these guys for eight years,” he said. “We wanted to give them another chance.” And it’s not just Arlington that’s run into such headaches with registration software. Similar problems have been reported in Los Angeles, where a glitch led to difficulties identifying special needs students and placing them into the appropriate programs, and in Tampa Bay, where the online system incorrectly informed 670 families that their children weren’t old enough to enter kindergarten.

The Cirrus Group’s product was appealing to the Arlington Public Schools because of its versatility: It could store students’ personal information, keep track of transactions, and handle registrations. Plus, the extended day program had never run into a major problem with the software until 2017.

In preparation for registration this year, programmers had retrofitted the site with more instances, which are essentially reservations of server capacity, Kaplow said. In doing so, they claimed that the system would be able to handle tens of thousands of simultaneous visitors. The employee handling the district’s account flew to Virginia for registration and seemed confident that it would go off without a hitch, Kaplow recalls.

Then, as soon as the system opened at 8 a.m., it crashed again. People were able to enter the system but couldn’t do anything once they were in. “I went on the computer to see if it was working, and I couldn’t even get my own kid in,” Kaplow says. “That’s when I first realized we were having a problem.” The representative said that there was an issue with the coding and spent four hours fixing it until it was up and running, Kaplow said.  (The Cirrus Group declined to comment for this story.)

Parents seemed even more irate than they had been the previous year. The replies to Arlington Public School’s tweet announcing the system was online hint at their frustration:

Arvaye Robinson, who was trying to register her daughters for the program, was up and ready to log into the site at 7:58 a.m. When she tried to log in two minutes later, the site kept timing out, and she thought there might have been something wrong with her computer. “I was all frustrated and nervous, on pins and needles,” she said. “You’re up against 500 other people trying to get in. I was panicking so bad it prompted me to go up there.” Robinson took an Uber to the district’s administrative offices, where dozens of other harried parents had rushed to try to register their kids on paper. Hundreds of people would show up over the course of the day. Her daughters eventually made it into the program. “I was lucky, I guess,” she said.

Next year, Arlington Public Schools will be seeking software services from a different vendor. The district will choose another off-the-shelf software and work with the company to modify it to fit the program’s needs. The search will entail an extensive bidding process, along with numerous interviews and sales pitches. There is now a much wider variety of registration software offerings available than eight or nine years ago, when the district began shopping around for one. Kaplow said, “My job is to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”