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Problem: Parent-teacher conferences at Westside Community Schools in Omaha, Neb., used to offer flav

Problem: Parent-teacher conferences at Westside Community Schools in Omaha, Neb., used to offer flavors of vanilla. The parents arrived on the designated night, and teachers opened their grade books to recite the student's records. It was news to parents but history all the same.

Solution: Superintendent Ken Bird longed for a way to cover the dull data in advance, allowing face-to-face meetings to forge relationships instead of acquaintances. So he was all ears when a Folsom, Calif., vendor PowerSchool demonstrated its student information system software in 2001. (Apple acquired the company later that year.)

"It's magic," Bird declares. The mechanics are super simple: Parents log on to the Web site, supply the password to their child's account, and voila, they have a front row seat to grades, test scores, discipline records, accolades, and e-mail access to teachers. Bird describes it as "online banking for your child." He adds, "And because it's posted in real time, some families choose to log in multiple times a day."

"We just handed them the keys to the castle," says Gary Cunningham, Westside High School's PowerSchool coordinator.

Original Recipe

The school district's IT staff tried to create a similar Legacy system in-house, but the experiment bombed. In Bird's words, it was cumbersome, slow and didn't provide real-time data. Still, Sharlene Karbowski, who coordinates student information and Web services for Westside, appreciated transferring the data from that old system into the PowerSchool structure on her own steam.

"I know technical support would do it all for me, but I enjoyed taking my own data and making sure it went into the right holes," she says. "It gave me a great understanding of this new software." The transfer was relatively quick, Karbowski tackled the project in June with a mid-July deadline.

The new software naturally stirred up fresh anxieties among teachers. A grade book is among the most personal items in their career tools, and Westside was requiring them to open it to the world. Under those circumstances, Bird considers his decision to immerse the entire district at once rather than piecemeal a lifesaver. "We took a no excuses approach," he says bluntly.

The unintended consequences eventually morphed into blessings in disguise. For instance, the community dialogue the software created over grading consistency spurred Bird to standardize the district's testing and grading procedures.

Happy Customers

Parents are enthusiastic about the new system. Even if Bird brings up a bland topic like the weather, the parents he meets eventually turn the conversation to why they like PowerSchool. "This is clearly at the top of the list of home runs we've hit with community engagement," he says.

Cunningham is often told stories of how parents connected car keys to grades. "I've heard that one over and over. We're empowering parents, giving them the hammer they never had before," he notes. Just six months into the 2005-06 school year Westside had tracked 600,000 log-ins to check in on its 6,000 students; Karbowski anticipates 1 million log-ins for the year. And that doesn't count the 30 percent of parents who chose to receive an e-mail progress report rather than look up the information on their own.

The only down side, if it can be called that, is the slight addiction the district has developed for the system. Karbowski dreads routine maintenance that requires her to take down the system for a few hours. "I don't care if it's Easter Sunday or Hanukkah, someone is using it," she points out.

Julie Sturgeon is a contributing editor.