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School Districts: Four Benefits of Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Technology

By David Johnston, GIS specialist at Educational Data Systems –

In today’s technologically connected world, we are constantly using Google Search to find the answers to our questions. In seconds, we can find the location of the nearest sandwich shop along with its reviews, website, and more. This is an example of geographic information systems (GIS) technology in action. In its simplest form, GIS technology delivers information based on a physical location. Think of it as a “smart map” that not only provides locations but can answer your questions, too.

Today, schools are using GIS technology to automate parent-school communication, which also enables administrative staff to become more effective. It also has become an invaluable data visualization tool for administrators during long-range school-planning processes. Here are four key examples of how your district can leverage the power of GIS technology.

1. School Boundary Communication
In the past, administrators and school planners would look at old maps or address books to determine school boundaries. In fact, many districts are still doing this, making it difficult for parents to easily access information when they have questions about what school attendance area they live in. The problem with this method is that maps or data can become inaccurate or outdated, and are not easily accessible when parents are working to get their child out the door to school.

By contrast, modern automated school locators update spatial data within the district’s boundaries to reflect new roads, routes, and neighborhoods. By simply typing in their home address, parents can access information about which school their child should attend and additional information regarding attendance boundaries.

School Locator

2. Transportation Routes
I recently met with a school’s administrative staff, and they said they keep LocateMySchool™ open on their screens all day. Why? Because the tool allows them to quickly answer parents’ questions regarding where their children should catch the bus, walking routes, and building locations. The administrative staff can even provide directions right to a child’s bus stop location while the parent is on their cell phone and looking at the same map.

3. Long-Range Planning
As an administrator, you know situations change and flexibility is key when making long-range plans. Districts are constantly identifying patterns and working to predict when they’ll need to open new schools, close old schools, prevent overcrowding, create new programs—the list goes on and on.

All these factors involve boundary planning, which can be refined down to a science, thanks to GIS technology tools. Smart maps allow you to easily see the area of student populations relative to where the schools are located, helping you make better decisions about adjusting boundaries. You can conduct searches to identify how many students are close to a given school or how many students would have to be reassigned if a boundary were changed—essentially, if you have the data, the possibilities for implementation are endless. A tool that’s powered by GIS technology gives you the ability to quickly and easily run scenarios, gauge their impact, and decide which would be the best to present to your board or planning committee.

4. Data Visualization
Have you heard the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words?” It certainly applies to the visualization of student data. Our brains are stimulated by visual elements, which is why more schools are using GIS technology boundary planning tools to visualize student data and bring numbers to life in the form of school boundaries, attendance rates, test scores, population trends, etc. Some people have a difficult time looking at tables and graphs during a presentation, but the inclusion of a visual representation of data helps concepts materialize. From my experience in education, maps and visual representations are much more successful at relaying information than normal, traditional, tabular data.

Leverage the Power of GIS Technology to Improve Communication

Research from the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) indicates that there is a positive correlation between the involvement of family and community in schools and the improved academic achievement of students, including higher grade-point averages, better scores on standardized tests, and higher attendance rates. And for families of all socioeconomic, racial/ethnic, and educational backgrounds—and for students of all ages—school communication is an essential part of their success.

So if we can improve student success through better communication, let’s do it!

While many schools hire full-time employees to manage their social media, websites, newsletters, and so on, this is simply not an option for some schools due to budgetary constraints. Communicating with the surrounding community should not be viewed as a financial burden but as an investment in building a strong school community. Fortunately, there are products available that can save schools some time and money by automating some of these tasks.

How do you answer the questions “Where is my school?” or “Which school should my child attend?

Some questions are best answered in person, via email, or over the phone. But questions involving “where” or “which” can best be answered by providing an address on a school boundary map and viewing the result. However, many times school boundary maps are actually static PDFs on a district or school website. These maps are simply a snapshot in time, so they’re at risk of being outdated, difficult to read, and even imprecise. Plus, they’re not interactive, putting the burden on the user to search for locations.

That’s why we recommend incorporating your school boundaries, bus stops, and other points of interest with a familiar and easy-to-use tool accessible to everyone in your school community. The LocateMySchool online school locator uses geographic information system (GIS) technology to create an interactive “smart map” that parents and school staff can use to answer some of these “where” or “which” questions. Using Google Maps as its base, LocateMySchool has a familiar user interface that is easy to use, precisely accurate, and frequently updated, making it an excellent option to improve communication using real-time information.

School Locator Checklist

Smart maps at your fingertips

A school locator can do much more than simply provide parents with answers about locations; it can also provide directions and present graphic information using color-coded, layered, interactive maps that parents can easily understand.

David Johnston, GIS Specialist at Educational Data Systems, explains, “You can ask the map, ‘How far is it to walk from my house to school? Where is the nearest bus stop to our house? If I moved into this area, what school would my kids go to?’—and you can visually see neighborhoods and surrounding areas, with a plethora of additional information included, making the map truly ‘smart’ compared to a static PDF.”

As we head into a new school year, consider using the power of GIS technology to improve communication between families, communities, and schools.

Four Tips to Save Time Answering Parent Questions

The questions:

“My child is going into the 6th grade. Which middle school will he attend?”

“We just moved into the district. Which bus should my child ride? Where is the bus stop nearest our home?”

The answer:

Technology. In many schools, the administrative staff takes care of office tasks, schedules appointments for school leaders and teachers, and handles school communication. Since technology has streamlined many processes for teachers, it can make the lives of the administrative staff easier, too!

Here are a few tips.

  • Implement an automated phone system that directs a caller to the right person or department. This should dramatically decrease the number of calls that the administrative staff actually needs to answer.
  • Adopt a parent-teacher communication app so that parents can communicate directly with their child’s teacher without calling the main office. Taking the administrative staff out of the picture not only saves them time but also helps teachers build stronger relationships with their students’ parents.
  • Use social media. More than 80% of the US population has at least one social media profile, so use it to your advantage! Make announcements and direct parents and families to useful resources on your school website. The key here is answering parent questions before they ask them.
  • Address questions about school designations, attendance zones, and bus stop locations by subscribing to an online, easy-to-use school locator like LocateMySchool™. The program uses geographic information system (GIS) technology to layer a variety of data onto an interactive map. Parents can type in their address and get the elementary, middle, and/or high school attendance zones for their location, see bus stop locations on the map, get walking and driving directions to the school, and more—eliminating the need to call the central office!

Research shows that automating simple tasks creates a more efficient working environment, alleviates stress, and reduces time spent completing monotonous, repetitive tasks. This enables administrative staff to refocus on core competencies. And a more efficient administrative staff equals a more efficient school!