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The Spy Who Loved Me

Software that can track a student's every move: Is it a parent's dream come true or a student's cata

You could call it a technological wonder, or a slap to student rights. But the most accurate description might just be Big Mother.

What is it? It's a school-to-home computer connection that is made possible with new software tools that allow parents to keep track of their children's academic, social and even eating patterns in school via an easy-to-use customized Web site. Using a password, parents can access information from home, work or anywhere in the world. And for students, their supposed semi-freedom in school has all but been cut off as parents are nearly sitting in classrooms, watching their every move.

The Salisbury family of Lebanon, Conn., is a perfect example. Wendy Salisbury is one happy mom. She can log-on to her computer and check her daughter's grades, test scores and future assignments anytime, anywhere.

Sarah Salisbury, who just finished eighth grade at Lebanon Middle School, really doesn't enjoy her mother's constant watching.

"This is a great thing," Wendy Salisbury says. "Sarah is not crazy about it. I'll get notices [from a teacher] and a quiz grade that is not reflective of Sarah's best efforts. Sometimes I know about it before Sarah does. She doesn't really like it."

Sarah adds, "If I don't hand anything in, my mom knows about it."

But she concedes the program keeps her on her toes and on top of long-term assignments, book reports and important tests.

While many parents eventually learn of their children's shortfalls when report cards are released at semester's end or hear evaluations in a teacher-parent conference, the damage can already be done. And although no research proves that parents who constantly keep track of their children's lives in school necessarily means a child's academic and social life will improve, no one is saying it doesn't help.

"There are certainly [many] students that feel Big Brother is watching over them," says Joe Bouman, technology director at Big Rapids (Mich.) Public School District, which started using

Skyward's PaC Family Access in March 2000. "But it allows schools one more way of communicating information back to the parents. ... The information will eventually get back to parents, but it's just getting out quicker now."

And Robert Nielsen, superintendent of the Bloomington School District 87 in Illinois, which also uses Skyward's family access program, agrees. "Anytime you can close whatever gap exists between home and school and bring parents in on a regular basis, as opposed to the traditional progress reports or calls home, the more likely the chance the student will achieve academically," he says.

Barbara Knisely, spokeswoman for the American Association of School Administrators, says no statistics are available on how many districts are using these programs but more members are "experimenting with options like this."

"It's about understanding people's schedules, making it easier for parents to become more involved with tracking methods," she says.

Knisely says her only concern is the "privacy issue" regarding children's grades on the Web and stresses that only parents should have access to their own children's accounts. She adds that the programs cannot eliminate the value of "human interface" and interactions between parents and teachers.

Parents connect-immediately

After Lebanon Public Schools were criticized for not communicating enough with parents, the district started using ParentCONNECTxp in March of 2000 as a pilot program in two schools, according to Mal Leichter, director of business and technology. The program is now available for about 1,000 pre-K-12th grade students but a formal grading system is still unavailable for elementary students, he says. As of May, about 60 percent of parents were using the software and three or four additional parents sign up every week.

"It's most beneficial to middle and high school students only because the primary benefit of it is to be able to see how your kid is progressing in their classes," Leichter says. "In elementary school, it still provides parents a look at announcements in the school building, they can contact a teacher or administrator via e-mail. They can look at attendance..."

Parent Participation

In Pueblo School District 60 in Colorado, Roncalli Middle School is using the same software in a pilot project. "We really are working hard to involve our parents in everything we do," says Joyce Bales, superintendent of schools. "Our elementary schools have 97 [percent] to 100 percent parent participation ... and we want that in the middle and high schools. When a child goes to middle school, the child has more teachers than they did in elementary school. And I think every parent wants to know: 'How is my child doing?' "

ParentCONNECTxp keeps track of student course histories, transcripts, and grades as well as a student's immunization shots, discipline problems and participation in sports and clubs.

Before this program started in Lebanon Public Schools, progress reports were sent home to parents with the student but some parents never even saw them. And even if parents saw the reports, five or six weeks would go by in between the reports without parents knowing what was going on with their children's school lives.

Parents who still don't get information about their children online receive progress reports at the mid-term and end of marking periods, and they keep in touch with teachers via the phone, in person or e-mail, he says.

A $12,000 grant covered the hardware, software, installation services and training for ParentCONNECTxp. It costs about $900 annually to cover maintenance and technical support for all three schools.

In the fall of 2000, teachers needed an initial three-hour training session and then a one-hour refresher course the following year. "The time I invest is more than worth the cost of the time in respect to what it gives back to the parents," Leichter says. "This is something I wish I had for my kids."

But he also stresses the program does not replace the importance of parents talking and meeting with teachers. "This is a place to gather information," he says.

And teachers have to get used to plugging all grades into grade books, which in the end saves time because it automatically averages the grades for each student. Teachers also have to get used to feeling "someone [is] looking over their shoulders," such as guidance counselors, who ask about the latest grades for high-achieving students, Leichter says.

The system also has built-in "alerts" if parents want to be notified immediately about the goings-on of their child. Teachers can send a parent an e-mail if their child is failing, is late to or is absent from class, he adds.

If a parent wants to know why their Johnny received a 53 in English, for example, the parent can click on the grade and a screen pops up with all the class assignments and grades, Leichter says.

Parents can also send teachers e-mails saying their son is having problems finding information for a project, for example. And teachers could respond with details about research techniques.

"This is a much better way to contact parents," Leichter says. Days can go by before a parent can get a teacher by phone, he says.

But there are a few unexpected snags, too.

Before the software system was implemented, Leichter remembers a vigilant mother who constantly sought progress reports from teachers. "She was driving the teachers nuts," he says. "The first day it was available, she logged on and saw her kid had an assignment due in science. He came home from school that day and she told him, 'You have a science project due.' The kid's mouth dropped to the floor."

It turns out the child was so smart with computers, he figured out the password and changed it so his mother could not get back in, the tech director says. School administrators had a long talk with the child and now "the kid has been good ever since," Leichter adds.

Peeking Into the Cafeteria

Skyward's PaC Family Access software is similar. It offers grades by class, attendance, discipline issues, progress reports, locker combinations, as well as food service facts so parents can track how their child's food money is spent. It also offers course requests so parents can select courses for their children for following years to prepare students for continuing education or employment.

In Illinois, Nielsen says he most enjoys having a student's entire academic record, behavior, and grades available using Skyward's software. "When a parent comes in with a concern, we look at the child's academic behavior and the information is all right there," Nielsen says. "The resolution to the problem is clear."

About 60 percent of Bloomington's 5,800 students have parents using Skyward. But Bloomington parents don't have immediate access to grades yet because there are no grade books. Parents can access progress reports, which include grades every four and a half weeks, according to Russ Conger, supervisor of administrative technology. "One of the nice things about it is that a lot of parents are divorced and another parent could live in a different city or state," Conger says. "They can receive information and look at a child's grades instead of waiting."

The district initially spent about $3,000 for the program and pays about $650 for the license every year.

In Big Rapids' district, food is a big issue. When the district was opening a new high school, it went from an open campus-where students could leave campus to get lunch-to a closed campus. Bouman says that meant six times as many students would have lunch at the new high school. To ensure students would not have to wait in long lines to pay for lunch, the district created student ID cards with prepaid food service accounts that could be swiped at a register.

With Skyward, if parents don't want their children eating sugar, for example, it can be built in the account, Bouman says. And if the child tries to buy something with sugar, such as ice cream, their cards won't allow them. "Parents do like to know what's in their account," Bouman says.

More than 50 percent of Big Rapids' parents are signed up with Skyward's program.

No more phone tag

John Morrill, a Lebanon, Conn., eighth grade science teacher, says he updates his grade book and checks his e-mail about eight to 10 times daily if parents have questions about their children. He says he usually only contacts parents if their children have behavioral or academic problems.

"I happen to think that the more information the parents have, the better off they are," Morrill says. "There's a partnership between the home and schools. We don't have to play phone tag anymore."

And Morrill believes more parents are involved in their child's education, in part because it's easier. "I get a lot more parents talking to me about their kid's progress than when I first started" teaching 33 years ago, he says.

Angie Lawrence, a science/chemistry teacher at Bloomington School District, agrees. She says Skyward makes it easier to keep her grade book in order, because mistakes are easily corrected without long re-writes.

She adds that if a student forgets a locker combination, she could look it up in the program. Or if a student is missing in her class, she could check if the student is absent for the day. And

if a student forgets a book in her classroom, she could track down the student in the building and return the book. "It allows you to serve the student better," Lawrence says.

She also appreciates using it for her own children, Andrew, who is entering his junior year in high school, and Amanda, who is entering sixth grade. Amanda had had a knee injury this past spring, and Lawrence wanted to make sure the physical education teacher received the doctor's note excusing her. She logged on and found the teacher did.

"My colleagues and I are busy, and I don't want to take up time," Lawrence says.

Paradise for parents, not for students

The quick and easy solution is music to ears of Sandy Schult of Paris, Mich., and her husband, Larry. They have always been involved parents.

Their 17-year-old son, Jay, who will be a senior at Big Rapids High School this fall, had a habit of buying a sports drink at lunch. And aside from spending money, he was also getting migraine headaches. So thanks to Skyward, Schult checked up on her son's habits and found he was buying the drink-something that could be linked to his migraines.

"He can't have a lot of caffeine, or MSG or eat any type of Mexican food," she says. "Skyward allowed me to see what he was eating. I can point it out to him and now he's much better with what he eats. He's a typical teenager. He doesn't pay much attention. This helps me keep track for him to help him."

Jay says he had to get used to mom hovering over him. "Every once in a while I'd get caught with" buying the drink, he says. "Sometimes I thought, 'Please don't see it [his food service bill]' so I could sneak one in."

But he says now he almost appreciates his mother's constant concern. "It makes you a little more accountable," Jay says.

Her daughter Jenifer, 18, who just graduated from high school, has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. More than three years ago, Schult had wanted to keep track of her daughter because she had been driving from Ferris State University, where she took part in the Math/Science Technology Center program, to high school. It was a 15-minute drive, but Schult worried about accidents and she had to know her daughter arrived to school safely. So between 11 a.m. and noon, she checked ParentCONNECTxp and found her daughter had made it safely.

But Schult also keeps track of grades. She says she will e-mail Jay's teachers if he does not understand an assignment or needs help researching. "Most of the time, he doesn't think to ask," Schult says, so she asks. "It really made him pay more attention. ... And his grades raised a good half a point."

"We don't punish them" for a lower-than-expected grade or if they didn't hand in homework, she adds. "We try to talk to them about what occurred. I don't use it as a weapon because that's not fair to them."

Salisbury says she and her husband always stressed the importance of education with their daughter. Salisbury, a self-described "hands-on" mother, says before this software she would sit with Sarah after school, sift through her backpack and ask about her up-coming assignments.

Then three years ago, when Sarah was in sixth grade, Salisbury signed up for ParentCONNECTxp. "Its not just day-to-day grade updates, but it also has homework assignments. And I'm able to look at that and know if Sarah has something due immediately or down the road. It's helpful in planning family activities and her sports activities so she doesn't leave it to the last minute."

Salisbury says the system has small glitches, such as if teachers do not update their grade books immediately, an assignment might show up as a "0" when the teacher has not filled it in yet. "Of course, I pounce on her [Sarah]. I ask, 'What's going on?' " she says. And it turns out it was a simple mistake. "But we get through it," Salisbury says.

And Salisbury says the program is not as intrusive as going through Sarah's backpack at the end of the day. "Her regard is that I'm doing the same thing, but in a different fashion," Salisbury says.

Sarah did find it intrusive at times. Although this past year, she was an active soccer player, played the clarinet, and volunteered for Big Brother/Big Sister, Sarah struggled with some work, particularly Spanish and math. "I usually do my work, but when I don't understand it or I'm under a lot of pressure, I blow off assignments. I do them in the morning before class or at study hall," Sarah says.

But Sarah also concedes her mother can remind her about long-term assignments. "If she has a big assignment due and she forgot a book in school, I'll scoot her back there," Salisbury says. "She enjoys the reminders."

And Salisbury believes her concern help Sarah be a more conscientious student. "I don't look for her to be a straight 'A' student but that she do the best she can," she says. "With the job market and the way the world is continuing to go, it's important to be a well-rounded student. I want her to establish good organization skills."

Angela Pascopella,, is associate features editor.