Student Information Systems >> How Do You Spell Parental Involvement? S-I-S

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Student information systems are engaging parents, benefiting kids, and—finally—winning over teachers, too.

There was a time when parental involvement meant packing the child a sack lunch every day and showing up on Back to School Night. That level of participation would pass for neglect nowadays, given the opportunities new Web-based technologies are providing parents to stay on top of their child’s academic life. Courtesy of new technologies such as student information systems (SIS), districts are opening new channels of communication, giving parents anytime Internet access to information they need to track their child’s progress—and affording them the opportunity to make a tremendous impact on their child’s learning growth.

Take what’s happening at Westside Community Schools, a school district in Omaha, NE, composed of more than 6,000 students attending 10 elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. In its attempts to keep parents in touch with their child’s academic performance, the district used to face the familiar obstacles: Parents who wanted an update on their kid would have to call the principal’s office or the teacher’s direct line. Parent-teacher conferences came too late to reverse a student’s lack of progress. Parents of older students were offered few opportunities to stay involved.

But the tide has turned at Westside in favor of meaningful parent involvement, and the district credits its implementation of Apple’s PowerSchool (www.apple.com/education/powerschool), a Web-based SIS that gives parents access to data on their child’s attendance, grades, evaluations, and general activities. The students have the same open access as swell.

Originally, the district began using the system to better manage reporting and assessment, scheduling, and grading, but when it opened the external interface to the students and parents, the benefits were impossible to ignore. Since the implementation of the SIS, attendance at Westside is better than ever, discipline reports are down, and, instead of declining test scores that are common in schools with similar demographics, test scores are consistently above the national average and among the highest in the state of Nebraska. School administrators attribute this in good part to the SIS.

A Wealth of Benefits

Many principals and teachers insist that, try as they might, some parents will always be involved and some never will. So why the preoccupation with trying to drum up parental involvement when the issue may be out of educators’ control? For the simple reason that a large body of research shows parental involvement improves student achievement, and because with the advent of the Internet, schools have never had an easier tool to offer parents.

Tracking student progress. The days of having to place a call in to the principal or teacher are gone. Using the SIS, parents can track their child’s progress at any time, from any Web connection. For example, a mother can check whether her child showed up to that class he was cutting, see how he did on today’s algebra exam, or see what after-school

Meddler or Involved Parent?

School-parent compacts attempt to set the terms of parental responsibility.
According to the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (www.nwrel.org/index.html), “Effective parental involvement means more than just getting parents to the school. Rather, it utilizes parents as partners in teaching and learning, recognizes parents as legitimate participants in school governance, fosters community cohesion, and supports the development of parenting skills.”
That’s all fine, but what does it mean in practice? What is too little parental involvement and what is too much? When does involvement become interference, and when does the lack of it become inattentiveness? Weekly parent calls to the teacher, for example, will strike most educators as going too far. However, direct e-mails from the teacher that update the parent on the week’s homework might suit both sides just fine. Defining these terms is critical to improving teacher-parent relations and, by effect, student performance.
To eliminate any ambiguities, some schools have taken to writing parental compacts intended to clearly establish everyone’s responsibilities in contributing to student progress. Indeed, No Child Left Behind dictates that such compacts be developed. Though first introduced in 1994, parent-school compacts had yet to be crafted in at least one-quarter of schools prior to the establishment of NCLB in 2002, according to a report conducted by research firm Better Education.
Although legislation has existed to encourage parental involvement since 1965, NCLB changes the roles, envisioning parents not only as participants, but as informed and empowered decision-makers in their child’s education. As such, the parent must be aware of the learning environment, and be able to interpret information about academic programs and evaluate in understandable terms the achievement of the child at the school. NCLB says that schools writing parental compacts must clearly outline parental responsibility for “monitoring attendance, homework, and television watching.”
In addition to this, however, schools are investigating ways to involve parents in their child’s learning itself, through activities such as interactive assignments, family goal-setting, and family reading time.

Maintaining parental involvement. Parental participation in schools tends to decrease as children grow older. Recent research from the US Department of Education (available at nces.ed.gov) has shown that part of the blame lies with the schools, for offering parents fewer opportunities to stay involved in their child’s later years. Student information systems create an easily available channel of information, hopefully stemming any drop-off in parental involvement.

Getting information on academic content. Included in the requirements of No Child Left Behind is the parent’s right to information about academic content. Prior to the advent of student information systems, it was often up to the student to provide information to the parents about the details of school life, such as homework assignments. Today, the same parents who relied on fragmented, selectively edited explanations from the child can access this information, unabridged, on a daily basis from the SIS.

More effective parent-teacher meetings. Parents can now become aware of issues as they emerge, instead of only at parent-teacher conferences or at the end of the semester, when it may be too late to make positive changes. Regularly scheduled parent-teacher meetings have become more meaningful. Since parents are already caught up on the basic facts about their child’s progress, they can talk substantively about furthering the child’s learning.

In a review of recent research on the topic, the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (www.sedl.org) lays out the impact of parental involvement in even plainer detail. According to the report (www.sedl.org/connections/resources/evidence.pdf), students with involved parents, no matter what their parents’ income or background, are more likely to:

  • Have better college entrance statistics
  • Earn higher grades and test scores, and enroll in higher-level programs
  • Be promoted, pass their classes, and earn credits
  • Attend school regularly
  • Have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school
  • Graduate and go on to post-secondary education

PowerSchool ‘Junkies’

So how has the PowerSchool SIS been received? At the high school alone, more than 500,000 separate parent or student inquiries were made to the system in the 2004-2005 school year. Total student logons have been measured at about 98 percent of the district population.

Understandably, encouraging greater parental involvement is an especially high priority for educators in lower-performing schools and districts, which usually reside in socioeconomically depressed areas. Even against these obstacles, the SIS is still an extremely effective, popular tool. Bob Cassidy, the technology director for the Somerton School District (AZ), says that his K-8 school district’s 2,500 students are 95 percent migrant and 100 percent free- or reduced-lunch recipients. And yet, at least half of the district’s parents are checking the PowerSchool Web site to keep track of their children’s progress.

The beauty of more-engaged parents is that their satisfaction level with their school tends to improve as their involvement goes up. A study conducted by the National Household Education Surveys Program (nces.ed.gov/nhes) asked parents of children enrolled in grades 1-12 to judge how strongly they agreed with the following statements:

  • Child’s teachers maintain good discipline in the classroom.
  • In child’s school, most students and teachers respect each other.
  • The principal and assistant principal maintain good discipline at child’s school.
  • Child’s school welcomes my family’s involvement with the school.
  • Child’s school makes it easy to be involved there.

The greater the parents’ involvement with their child’s school, the more likely they were to strongly agree with these statements. For example, among two-parent families in which fathers were highly involved, nearly half strongly agreed that their child’s teachers maintain good discipline in the classroom, compared to about a third of respondents in families in which fathers had low involvement.

The appeal of the SIS among parents was to be expected, but the positive response from students has surprised some educators who thought the kids would be more resistant to the program. On the contrary, many students have become self-proclaimed “PowerSchool junkies,” using the system as a day-timer to support the busywork side of school life. Kids who are great thinkers but less than great organizers have found that being keyed into a system that keeps track of their homework assignments frees them to focus on the work itself in a way they had never been able to before.

Westside Story

For as long as there have been schools, the teacher’s grade book has been top-secret, a slender black notebook whose contents are guarded like a bank vault. So naturally, there has been some reluctance among some school staff to giving parents unfettered access to it, as well as other sensitive student information.

Early on, Westside teachers had some of these very qualms. To overcome them, all staff were trained in PowerSchool in order to become efficient in creating, providing, and using the information. Now that the teachers have seen how parents regard the system—as a value-added service—they have become much more excited about its timesaving benefits, and more consistent in sending grades and reports to parents. That the system is Web-based and cross-platform is important to teachers as well, as it makes access easy and the transition process seamless.

After overcoming their skepticism, teachers at Westside did have to coordinate the standardizing of their grading processes, because students’ grades became visible all the time, not just three times per year. Teachers also shared techniques on better communicating their expectations to students. Students have thus gained a better understanding of what is expected of them and now take more responsibility for their own progress.

Ultimately, Westside teachers found the SIS technology easy to grasp. Westside High School Vice Principal Kent Kingston recalls, “The teachers quickly progressed from, ‘How do I use it?’ to ‘How did I ever live without it?’ ”

Westside parents have voiced similar sentiments. They have seized the opportunity to get and stay involved. A middle school parent wrote to the district: “I want to share my excitement about PowerSchool. This tool is nothing short of revolutionary! The connectivity it affords parents with the teachers, with the assignments and curriculum, and with the individual progress of the student in ‘real-time’ is extraordinary.”

The full story, though, is told by the number of students flocking to Westside schools from surrounding districts. More than one-quarter of the students attending Westside Community Schools are transfers, drawn by the district’s diligent work to leverage technology for improved student achievement. The SIS is the centerpiece of that effort, which also includes the district’s use of wireless PDA systems and laptops for teachers and administrators.

PowerSchool, in particular, has succeeded in districts other than Westside. It’s being used in 7,000 schools and districts across the country, and the experiences seem to match those of the Westside schools—namely, when parents and schools join up, teachers become more aware of the needs and perspectives of their students, while parents become more familiar with teachers and the day-to-day realities of school life, and are thus better equipped to make educational decisions.

It Takes a Village

Schools are starting to look toward the community—particularly businesses—to play a role in supporting parental involvement.
No Child Left Behind’s requirements beg some questions concerning how far the parental-involvement strategy can be pursued. In fact, the word community is cropping up more regularly in educator circles. Educators are beginning to ask, for example, whether reaching out to local businesses to help with parental involvement makes sense for schools. Perhaps neighboring schools could join together to ensure that parents have the flexibility necessary to attend certain school events, to check in on their child during the lunch hour, and to be involved in other ways that might not be currently available to them because of work.
Claire Smrekar, a professor of Public Policy and Education at Vanderbilt University (TN), writes on the Harvard Family Research Project Web site (www.gse.harvard.edu/hfrp): “Schools tend to structure school-based activities for traditional, stay-at-home mothers. At the same time, a large number of households include parents who are employed in full-time occupations that provide little flexibility and opportunity for parents to leave work during school hours. As schools begin to rethink the purpose and organization of parent involvement activities, employers should re-evaluate workplace policies.” Businesses demanding a better-educated workforce, Smrekar goes on to say, owe that much to the parents who can significantly help impact student achievement.
For many families, the partnership between the school and the business community has actually opened up opportunities for improved involvement. Some mothers interviewed in a Harvard Family Research Study, for example, described communicating with their child’s teacher from their workplace by phone or the office fax machine. Several moms brought their children to family-friendly workplaces for child care and learning purposes—for example, to access computer programs. Others drew upon supervisors and coworkers for educational advice and other supports, such as help in choosing a good school.

So don’t be deterred by an early case of staff jitters over opening up school data for parents and students to see. Once the responsibilities of all parties have been defined, the positive outcomes will outweigh any growing pains associated with change. The use of technology, especially a Web-based system, can make increased parental involvement a more comfortable, favorable development for all involved.

Ken Bird is the superintendent of the Westside School District. He has received the eSchool News (www.eschoolnews.com) Tech Savvy Award and the Apple President’s Award.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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