Making the jump from Powerschool to Illuminate, part 1

After nearly 9 years as a Powerschool using district, we are planning to make the jump to the Illuminate student information system, known as ISI. With an expected implemenation date of 7/1/16, no mean feat, this.

NOTE: A point of clarification, we are referring here not to IlluminateDNA, which is for content standards testing, but IlluminateISI, which is the SIS. We will frequently use Illuminate to mean one, the other or both. 🙂

We had to weigh the pros and cons of the two systems, and look at what we would have to learn to do to maintain system usability.

Powerschool Pros:

  • Institutional knowledge. Several staff members have been trained in Powerschool, and while no one person knows the entire suite of tools, there are folks with areas of expertise.
  • Large company, large userbase. Many charter schools use Powerschool, and there is a large and active user group where we can crowdsource answers. There are also established consultants who can train.
  • It does what we need. From attendance to grade book to historical records, Powerschool did 80% of what we needed it to do, or we were able to “hack” out a solution.

Powerschool Cons:

  • Limited access to help. There are only two designated users at each site allowed to contact the Pearson help desk, so the expertise tends to be held by a specific few. The general help desk resource is password protected, but not integrated into any existing authentication system (such as the Powerschool username), so we had to maintain a separate ID and password for access to the help desk website. Very few staff members used their access. Any additional training, such as CBT or videos, came at a cost, such as a license for $1500 for specific recurring task trainings. At a charter school, such fees come at a cost of other programs.
  • Data is difficult to export and visualize. We have all become Excel kung-fu experts in moving data in and out of Powerschool, but there is no built in visualization without buying yet another product. We looked into visualization tools such as SchoolZilla and Tableau, but the licensing costs were prohibitive.
  • Gradebook uses Java. The constant and ill timed (for us) java patches and redownloads of the gradebook made getting grades in on time regularly a problem. While Powerschool is moving away from their Java gradebook, this couldn’t happen fast enough, as the limited IT resources have to handle the patches and testing.
  • DDOS. Our Powerschool instance has had significant outages due to distributed denial of service attacks. Powerschool is moving to another hosting vendor, but this has given us pause due to multiple service outages over the last two semesters.
  • Company spun off from Pearson. Powerschool is now a separate company from Pearson, and I am concerned about the continuity of support and stability. My experience with another company rolling up and going public, only to be sold off for parts a few years later gives me pause.
  • Gradebook grade scales are always punitive. Powerschool has great difficulty, in my opinion and experience, in implementing progressive grade scales. At this point, you start the semester with a score of 100% and student success is measured in how well you control the slide downwards. There are only hacks and workarounds to reward students for mastery and competence, and the sins of their journey weigh too heavily on their grade.


In my next post, I’ll discuss the perceived advantages and disadvantages of Illuminate, and touch on some of the tasks that are before us.