Power to the Parents

Online portals help parents become active participants in their children's education.

THE DEFINITION OF EDUCATION in the 1828 edition of Webster’s Dictionary includes a section that’s as relevant today as it was when published: “To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, is important … and an immense responsibility rests on parents and guardians who neglect these duties.”

It has always been an immense responsibility for parents to be involved in school and classroom activities, extending the reach of the school into the home. This is especially true now, as the demands on students have increased, and influences and distractions are more diverse and omnipresent.

During the past several decades, educators have placed greater emphasis on establishing and maintaining parent-school relationships. “Parent involvement” has become an article of faith, a popularly sought-after source of support and assistance that all too often proves to be an unfulfilled hope.

Many approaches have been tried to improve parent participation — with limited success. Now, however, the advent of ubiquitous, affordable and easy-to-use technology promises to make a great difference, as we see an emergence of parent portals.

A parent portal is an online resource created to foster and deepen the relationship between the school and parents, with a goal of improving student achievement. School districts are using portals to help parents meet the challenges they face in providing educational support to their children. (See “Meet the Parents ” on page 30.)

How does a portal differ from a run-of-the-mill Web site? “It is designed expressly with the user’s interests and profile in mind,” says John Raymond, a Woodbury, Conn.-based consultant and technologist. “It makes it very easy for them to locate, access and manage relevant information and, perhaps, set personal viewing and navigation preferences.”

Most schools have some sort of online parent portal, even if it’s a vintage 1996 brochure-like Web site, Raymond notes. “With the advent of dynamic Web sites and content management systems, the possible features of parent portals are mushrooming,” he says. “But there is one common thread that unites them: The portal concept is to create a Web site where users can find all the information relevant to their needs and wants.”

MODELING SUCCESS

One school that has started to see the success that parent portals can provide is St. Mary Magdalen School in Oakville, Conn.

“The launching of the Web site was received enthusiastically by both students and parents,” says Principal Julie Pion. “Our parents and athletes love the fact that they can check the calendar daily to see if there are any changes in schedules or ball fields. … Since each teacher maintains his or her own Web site [which is a section of the school’s site], parents get up-to-date information on daily work and homework.”

In Florida, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools have long been involved in the development of portals as an important support for all members of the educational community. Through the district’s instructional portal, extensive online content and assessment pieces are available to teachers, students and parents.

According to Carl Durnberg, a consultant who helped the district establish some vital aspects of its online offerings, the district is launching an online version of a parent training course that focuses on parental involvement and literacy, and will leverage the online content available to youngsters.

In addition, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools offers The Parent Academy (http://theparentacademy.dadeschools. net). The site explains its mission this way: “Partnering with higher education, the goal is to have buildings, facilities and resources harnessed to open college classrooms to parents all across this county. … Parents will have a rich menu of opportunities, which will include basics on how to help their child, to their own life skills classes, such as How to Write a Resumé for a New Job.”

“The use of technology is an excellent way to reach parents and keep them informed of their children’s progress, upcoming meetings or events,” says Sandy Smith-Moise, dean of The Parent Academy. “The reality is that many parents work and lead busy lives. Technology enhances the ability to keep the channel of communication between the teacher, school or district and the parent open and current. It provides an easy and inexpensive way to deliver information and helpful resources.”

TIME-SAVING BENEFITS

“Parents don’t have to wait through radio ads or TV commercials to see if school has been cancelled due to poor weather,” says Ron Fabrizi, the instructional leader of technology at Shelton Public Schools in Shelton, Conn. “Our emergency announcement tools provides parents with the answers they want.”

But do parent portals really make a significant difference in student achievement? “Teachers who post homework assignments on their Web site see improvements in the return rate of homework, since parents can verify item by item,” Fabrizi says. “Many parents have expressed gratitude for this. Parents can contact their [children’s] teachers via the Web site’s staff directory at any time of the day or night; teachers can respond in the same manner.”

CRUCIAL CONSIDERATIONS

For school districts planning to develop and maintain parent portals, the following questions need to be considered:

• What information will parents find most useful, desirable and essential: a calendar of events, homework assignments, grades, school news?

• What are the essential characteristics of an exceptional online parent resource: easy to navigate, provides contact information and two-way interactive communication opportunities, compatible with most home computers?

• What parent-oriented technologies can be used to make the online portal more valuable: podcasting, videoconferencing, class blogs?

• What barriers have to be overcome to help parents become more involved: language barriers, time constraints and personal schedule conflicts, awkwardness in face-to-face meetings?

Fabrizi said school districts will also need to consider two other key issues: Who will administer the portal, and how difficult will that be?

“The easy-to-use WYSIWYG [what you see is what you get] interface allows the most novice users to create a Web page with a half hour of training,” he says. “We have gone from about 10 teachers having Web sites last year to nearly 150 teachers having created a page. It is very easy to designate pages for groups and train them how to maintain their pages.”

Secretaries and certain teachers administer Shelton’s Web site so that one person doesn’t have to cover all eight district schools. “These people know their school best and can best describe the important news and events taking place there,” Fabrizi explains. “The master administrator can adjust the scope and depth of the publishing rights of these groups.”

No matter how the site is administered, one truth about parent portals stands out: The ultimate parent Web resource is a moving target that will have to be continually updated and advanced. Videos of student activities and lessons, new teaching strategies, chat forums and message boards, and student-created pages are just part of the emerging world of parent portals.

Through the enlightened use of this technology, we can help parents better meet their responsibilities in the education of their children.

Bernard Percy, a former New York City public school teacher, was co-founder and editor in chief of Converge, an education and technology magazine. Mark Gura, former director of the Office of Instructional Technology of the New York City Board of Education, works with Fordham University’s Regional Educational Technology Center. Percy and Gura co-authored the book Recapturing Technology for Education: Keeping Tomorrow in Today’s Classrooms.

MEET THE PARENTS

Parents appreciate having easy Web access to information about their children’s education, such as grades, assignments, events and schedules.

We asked parents of children in elementary, middle and high schools to discuss their thoughts and opinions about parent portals. They agreed on the importance and potential worth of portals, and shared some interesting ideas and insights about their use.

The parents emphasized the value and usefulness of being able to easily access information such as grades, assignments, special achievements, calendars of events and schedules on the portal.

“[Our school’s] Web site gives information about almost everything that is happening — homework assignments, weekly tests, sports schedules and any other events,” says Kristin Milo, whose children attend the sixth and eighth grades at St. Mary Magdalen School in Oakville, Conn.

“My favorite features are the teachers’ Web sites, which display the homework and tests that will be given each day. My children sometimes have ‘partial amnesia’ regarding these, but there is no question once I see the Web site.”

Getting a heads-up about their children’s homework assignments makes life easier for parents. “The biggest difference for me is the ability to check what homework or assignments are due before I even pick the kids up,” says Minnie Calo, the mother of a preschooler and a fifth-grader at St. Mary Magdalen. “I find myself more at ease, knowing what’s ahead for our night even before I get home.”

News and information from different sources, including the school board, is also very useful to parents. According to Jane Dowty, whose son is a junior at Shelton High School in Shelton, Conn., “I find being able to access information from the superintendent’s message very valuable. It keeps me abreast of the latest issues affecting the school system.”

Connecting With Teachers

The ability to interact with their children’s teachers is another key benefit of the parent portal. “A big value is being in contact with the teachers on a daily basis if I want to,” says Lauren Lovejoy, whose daughter is a junior at Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, Va. “It enables me to have close contact with my daughter’s teachers, even though I don’t usually have the time to meet with them in person.”

Ilene Rosenthal, the mother of first- and fifth-graders at Maret School in Washington, D.C., agrees. “At my children’s school,” she says, “the teachers e-mail parents on a regular basis to let them know what the students will be studying, what projects will be assigned and what field trips to plan for.

“This has been a terrific way to keep up with my daughters’ education, and to allow me to engage in conversations with them about the subjects they are studying. It also opens a direct line of communication with the teachers when I have specific questions.”

As president of Strategic Initiatives for Achieve3000, an education Internet-based company, Rosenthal efficiently juggles her work and home responsibilities in order to spend time with her children and actively participate in their education. She has some perceptive and relevant insights about the importance of “push technology.”

“Because of the constraints on my time, I am very appreciative when important information is sent directly to my e-mail box,” Rosenthal says. “I monitor my e-mail regularly, and, in this way, I don’t miss important events in my children’s lives.

“While parent portals are very helpful, if they don’t ‘push’ key information to parents, they run the risk of having parents miss information because they didn’t have time to check the portal that day.”

Though Rosenthal values the information available on the school portal, she strongly believes that face-to-face communication should not be neglected. “Nuanced information usually comes from talking directly to other parents and teachers,” she notes.

Access to parent portals also allows parents to help their children in ways they never could before. Lovejoy appreciates a program used at Stonewall Jackson that provides direct access to her daughter’s class assignments and lessons, as well as links to other sources on subjects being studied.

“Maddy had trouble in chemistry, and we found the link very useful,” Lovejoy says. “Her [chemistry] teacher put his full Microsoft PowerPoint lesson on the site, and we did the lesson with Maddy.

“Seeing lessons helps us get clues as to what’s being taught. The other night, we actually redid the chemistry lesson by following the PowerPoint presentation, even though it has been forever since I did chemistry and can’t remember it all.”

Room for Improvement

How can parent portals be even better? “Provide a link that would allow parents and guardians to offer suggestions and comments about the Web site, including what we would like to see available on the site,” says Dowty. Getting feedback about the Web site, she adds, can help the school system “accommodate the needs of the population and keep them better informed.”

One problem mentioned by some parents is the inconsistent use of portals by teachers, since some teachers don’t always keep the site up to date. Moreover, according to Lovejoy, “Not all teachers are as comprehensive as needed. [For example,] it would be helpful to get various links to what students are learning to get background data on the subject.”

Rosenthal mentions an innovative idea at her children’s school that can be of tremendous help to other parents. “Because parent portals are local to each community, they have the potential of creating new marketplaces where services can be exchanged,” she says.

“One creative parent recognized that there was a vast pool of talented high school students who needed to make extra money and a vast pool of parents who needed babysitting services,” says Rosenthal. “She created a section of the portal where students … could sign up to help parents. While the portal did not vouch for the capabilities of these students, it did create an effective place for parents to begin their search for child care.”

Also important, Rosenthal stresses, is to make portals easy to access and navigate. “The more difficult it is to get into the site,” she says, “the less likely I am to use it.

“While student-specific information should be password protected, it is most helpful when general information is available without having to remember a password.”

Overall, these portals get high marks from parents by providing an efficient means to stay closely involved in their children’s education.

Bernard Percy and Mark Gura

Oct 31 2006

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