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Schools' Computers Keep Parents in the Know

Education: The Internet allows parents to check report cards and send e-mail to teachers. For students, it's a mixed blessing.

July 22, 2001|GREG TOPPO | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — When report card day rolled around for Pam Murphy's children, she didn't watch the mail for an official-looking envelope or dig in a backpack for a crumpled slip of paper.

Murphy had already seen the report cards online.

The mother of four in Sandy, Utah, clicked her way to end-of-year grades and teacher comments for her two oldest school-aged children, with a type of program many schools are using to keep parents in the loop.

The days of hiding lousy report cards may soon come to an end for underachievers everywhere. School systems nationwide are uploading student information--from grades and test scores to class schedules, discipline referrals, homework assignments and attendance records--to the Internet. Using assigned passwords, parents can access the information anytime, anywhere.

Such systems have been around for several years but didn't really take hold until last school year.

For Murphy, president of the PTA at Mt. Jordan Middle School, the system has helped her track her eighth-grade son Michael's test scores and grades all year.

"That has helped me in feeling good about the things that he's doing," she said.

John Forbes, technology specialist with the Fresno Unified School District, said posting grades for parents has raised expectations for students, who now know "that more eyes are on them."

Forbes said such systems have revolutionized both parent and teacher attitudes about student records, since teachers also can log on and easily check their students' grades and attendance in other classes. A basketball coach, for instance, can check algebra grades or unexcused absences for the entire team with a few clicks.

"Every day you lose on a kid who's not performing well is a day that's lost for intervention," Forbes said.

While viewing her son's grades, Murphy also can click on a teacher's name, and up pops a blank form with that teacher's e-mail address. Murphy can quickly toss off a note. This year she also requested weekly progress reports, which teachers e-mailed to her.

Eduardo Alba, principal at Mt. Jordan, said 40% of parents at the 820-student school request regular reports. The system has only been up for a year, but already Alba said he has a "gut feeling" that it's improving students' grades.

"We get a lot of neat comments from parents," he said. "They appreciate the fact that they can get on anytime they want."

Alba urges those without computers to use public library computers, while parents in other districts can use a touch-tone phone for access, much as they would to check a credit card balance.

"I had no angry parents this year," said Mark Koca, an El Dorado Springs, Mo., high school technology teacher. "They knew what their kids' grades are."

Such Web-based systems, which include PowerSchool, K12Planet, ParentCONNECTxp and a newcomer called LetterGrade, aren't cheap. At $4,500 per high school and $5 per student, Forbes said, PowerSchool cost Fresno High School about $14,500 to implement last year. It'll cost another $2,300 for permission to continue using it this fall.

It's not clear how many schools are using such systems, but an official at PowerSchool, which is owned by Apple Computer and is among the most popular among a dozen systems, said about 2,700 schools use it.

Such applications are natural extensions of computerized grade books, which have been common for a decade. Teachers enter attendance and grade information on their desktop computer. The information is stored in the school's computer system and uploaded to a central Web site.

School officials and those who peddle the programs maintain that they're as secure as comparable systems that allow investors to track stock portfolios. Forbes said Fresno's system would be very difficult even for savvy student hackers to break into, saying the most vulnerable spot is the teacher's desktop computer, where grades are entered.

In most cases, school officials said, grades are altered when teachers simply walk away from a computer without logging off--the equivalent of leaving their grade book open on a desk.

Brent Hillsman, technology coordinator for the El Dorado Springs school district, said students have reacted to the system with "mixed emotions."

"Initially they were going, 'Aw, we hate this because our mom and dad can check our grades any time.' "

Now, he said, students are logging on themselves and keeping track of their work.

Murphy's son Michael said the system is a decidedly mixed blessing.

"My mom checks my grades, like, every day," he said. "It's not very good if your parents are strict."

But at least that final report card --a few A's, a few C's--wasn't such a shock.

"It made it easier for her to take," he said.

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