- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2007

Let’s face it. Even the brightest students don’t tell their parents everything about every school day. For some children, the omission isn’t glaring. For others, it could signal a downward trend in their grades or attendance.

Technology now gives parents in some area school districts a way to check up on their children or help them prepare for the next test or homework assignment. And they don’t even have to leave their home.

Software packages created by groups including District-based Blackboard, Edline and Infinite Campus let parents log in to their children’s school systems via the Internet to see what assignments are coming next.

Students may bemoan the new layer of adult supervision, but parents see the technology as a valuable tool.

“I think it’s wonderful,” says Allison O’Brien, a mother of two from Crofton, Md.

Ms. O’Brien, president of Crofton Middle School’s Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) in Anne Arundel County, says these Web-based programs can help even the best of students perform better.

“The forgotten homework assignment can sometimes be a disaster,” Ms. O’Brien says.

Not all portal programs act the same, but they typically let parents, after punching in a secure password, check upcoming test dates, track attendance and make sure library books are returned on time. Other features can include tracking behavioral incidents, immunization information — even what the child buys at the school cafeteria.

Kim Schroeder, marketing manager with Minnesota-based Infinite Campus, says her company’s software allows information to be forwarded to parents in real time whenever they log in.

“It’s all about communication and helping parents get involved with the kids,” says Ms. Schroeder, whose company works with 1,200 school districts nationwide.

The Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act helped spark interest in these portals, Ms. Schroeder says. The portals track attendance, one of NCLB’s provisions.

“Parents at work can check if Sally made it to class on time. It all feeds to the front office,” she says of attendance tracking via the portal. The accountability runs two ways; if a teacher forgets to take attendance, the same office is notified.

Attendance tracking isn’t just to keep government officials satisfied, Ms. Schroeder says.

“Attendance is usually the first place you notice trouble [with students],” she says.

Parents can check in on the portal anytime they wish, but a study done by Infinite Campus showed the peak log-in time for parents in a Colorado school district came around 3 p.m.

“Parents are prepared when their children get home from school. They know what they need to do for them,” Ms. Schroeder says.

School districts reserve the right to determine what, if any, information is shared online, she says. So while one teacher might post everything he or she does in the classroom, another may use the system simply for test scores and homework assignments.

Kurt Kohls, a school-based technology specialist with Fairfax County Public Schools, says students get benefits with the technology along with their parents. Students can upload photographs and videos while their parents check out their latest homework assignments, Mr. Kohls says.

Children also can learn alongside their peers, even if those peers don’t live in the same town. The Blackboard system used in Fairfax allows several students to edit the same document at once, or otherwise contribute to a large lesson plan just by entering in a determined pass code, Mr. Kohls says.

Because of that protection, “you don’t have other people posting things that aren’t necessary to the lesson,” he says.

Jessie Woolley-Wilson, president of K-12 at Blackboard, says her company’s portal does more than give parents tips about the latest test scores.

The system allows parents to schedule conferences with their child’s teachers and provide contextual grade information. If a child’s grades match up well or poorly against children his own age, the parent can find out about it, Ms. Woolley-Wilson says.

“It helps teachers involve parents as partners in the learning process,” says Ms. Woolley-Wilson, whose company serves schools in 46 states as well as 14 clients in the D.C. area, including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. It also tells parents what may or may not be the best time to take a larger role in their child’s education, she adds.

The communication also extends to the company itself. Part of the portal includes a Blackboard Exchange Idea, where teachers and parents can sound off about the programming and ask for new features.

School funding is always an issue, and some schools may think parent-friendly portals remain a luxury.

Ms. Woolley-Wilson says schools can pay for Blackboard and similar programs through a number of means, from Title I dollars, which help schools with high percentages of students from poor families, to digging into federal or state budgets. Bond measures also can be used for the systems.

And while technology is never cheap — an annual subscription for Blackboard’s lowest-level offering is $3,900 — she says these programs allow for a sizable reduction in the amount of paper used.

“You can really diminish dramatically the amount you spend on paper. You don”t send notes to parents, and teachers can retrieve homework assignments online,” she says.

“Increasingly, schools and school administrators are seeing it like a necessity, not as something that’s nice to have,” she adds.

Ms. O’Brien doesn’t feel compelled to check in on her two children’s class lessons more than once a week, but she says she knows of parents who log in nearly every day.

She hasn’t heard any complaints about the technology from other parents. In fact, the only grousing on the subject comes from those who wish teachers would post more information, more often.

She is also looking forward to the middle school’s first online progress report, to be e-mailed to her shortly.

“No matter how good or bad your student is, you don’t always see what comes home with them,” she says.

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