Parents, Educators Make New Connection With the Internet
While parents of an earlier time expressed their views about the local schools in the ballot box or by picking up the telephone, today's parents have a powerful new weapon: the Internet.
In Wauwatosa, Wis., in Palo Alto, Calif., and dozens of other school districts, parents are using the massive computer network to dig for data, shape public opinion, forge alliances, broadcast information, and tap expertise from beyond the local community.
For these citizens, often from upscale communities, the utility of the Internet goes much further than the cafeteria menus, messages from the superintendent, and sports and meeting schedules featured on most school sites on the World Wide Web.
Some school officials worry, however, that the use of the Internet could distort their communication with the public because Internet users are drawn disproportionately from the ranks of the affluent. That, they say, can exclude those who can't afford computers or Internet access.
Web sites can also conceal the real dimensions of a group's strength, said Liz Whitaker, the technology coordinator of the Tucson, Ariz., schools, where a local group has a Web site that is critical of the district's curriculum. "You can't tell when you look at a home page if there are 1,000 people behind it or one," she said.
Educators who envision a Web site as an ideal electronic brochure for their school or district may be surprised to find competing titles appearing. A Texas parent, for example, runs the Unofficial Plano Independent School District site, which rivals the district's official information outlets in quality and thoroughness.
Tim Williams, a Plano medical-equipment salesman with two children in public schools, said he and a few parents set up the site last year to oppose a trio of school bond proposals they believed were excessive and poorly explained.
The local newspaper gave few details of the complex proposals, Mr. Williams said, and the only other way to get the information was to drive to the district office and pay for photocopying. So he put the full text of the plans on the Web.
The bonds passed. But he interpreted the 1,000-plus visits that his Web site received as a vote of confidence and decided to maintain it with an expanded mission.
Mr. Williams says his site offers local parents the only independent view of the Plano district's management and performance.
He posts information sent to him by teachers and parents and district data that is not offered on the official Web site--including budget information and state school accountability ratings. He dispenses his own opinions about the district and its officials, but he said he keeps opinion separate from data.
His site offers links to other relevant Web sites, including the district's official home page--a courtesy not returned at the district site.
Mary Gorden, a communication specialist with the Plano district, said its official Web site provides a wide variety of information and that it has been well-received by local parents. Though she did not comment directly on the alternative site, she said the district objects to Mr. Williams' use of its official emblem.
"Our feeling is that this is an inappropriate use of our trademarked logo," Ms. Gorden said.
In Wilmette, Ill., parents stay on top of developments and issues in District 39 through a "listserv," a computer system that automatically routes e-mail messages to a list of subscribers.
Roger Weissburg, a parent and university professor, set up the list in March 1996 after convincing the 3,300-student district's community review committee, of which he was co-chairman, of the need for creative solutions to engage parents.
Shortly after the listserv started, contract negotiations between the district's teachers and the school board reached an impasse, and the computer system became a fencepost and sounding board for the latest developments.
Parents sent e-mail messages asking about the issues in dispute and trying to get a read on whether teachers would strike. Teacher representatives and two school board members used the forum to air their personal opinions and set the factual record straight.
At the dispute's critical phase, subscribers learned the outcome--the teachers voted against striking--15 minutes before the local parent-teacher organization's telephone chain began spreading the news, Mr. Weissburg said.
That minor triumph was clouded by some hurt feelings among users of the list. Mr. Weissburg acknowledges that some parents stopped participating because "four or five very bright, critical people" sent scathing messages about other people who were expressing their opinions. "Unless you have a tough skin, that shuts you up," he said.
Overall, though, Mr. Weissburg said the system worked. Parents asked "good, solid, probing questions, and sometimes made assertions that could be corrected when they were way off base."
Mr. Weissburg acknowledges, however, that it isn't perfect.
One problem is the small number of parents involved. Participation has never been large--generally about 160.
Another factor is the reluctance of school administrators to use the communication tool. "The district was very concerned with equity and access and did not want to make this an official mode of communication," Mr. Weissburg said.
The school board president, John Relias, told the Chicago Tribune last fall that the listserv contributed nothing to resolving the dispute with teachers.
Since the labor trouble blew over, the listserv has been used to discuss issues such as spending and teaching methods, though it has sometimes lapsed into silence.
Putting on the Pressure
Other Web sites seek to pressure school districts to change their teaching methods, spending priorities, or other policies. The groups behind these sites often go by acronyms that speak volumes--such as HOLD, PUSH, and PRESS.
Their sites link to one another, allowing them to share supporters and mobilize resources nationally and even internationally. Some sites offer push-button petitions and instant letters to state legislators that Internet passersby can fill out.
Leah Vukmir, the president of PRESS--for Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools--in Wauwatosa, Wis., said she has received e-mail from people in 40 states and was stunned to receive a check from a math professor in Switzerland who had seen the group's Web site.
HOLD, in Palo Alto, stands for "Honest Open Logical Debate on Curricular Reform" and seeks to influence the teaching of mathematics and reading in the Palo Alto district.
HOLD's Web site is a one-stop shop for academic research and newspaper articles that support its view that recent curricular reforms have been misguided. HOLD has united with start-up groups in other communities to campaign at the state level over academic content and performance standards.
Bill Evers, a member of HOLD's steering committee, said the Internet has been a valuable tool for compiling and presenting information. "One of the values in our group is that educational reform should be based on the best scientific research," he said.
Another Web site, run by Mathematically Correct, which squares off against the school administration in San Diego, offers a complete alternative set of K-12 math standards that can be downloaded.
Mr. Evers said these groups use the Internet to share intelligence about the opposition. The sites also allow cross-fertilization with other cyberspace discussions, allowing parents, for example, to hook up with university math professors who are critical of the latest math trends.
But having a loud Web presence doesn't mean that HOLD has achieved its objectives. The group, which claims about 1,000 supporters, has packed school board meetings and made inroads in winning support of the administration over the past two years. But it has been frustrated by opposition from teachers and by the slow pace of change in the 9,100-student district.
Barbara Liddell, Palo Alto's acting superintendent, said the district places little value on the opinions of the remote or theoretical communities in cyberspace. And local residents, whose opinions matter most, she said, are best reached through televised board meetings and newsletters.
"We're not interested in the larger community [on the Web]; they don't influence our decisionmaking," she said.
Even so, Mr. Evers said, the Web site has proved valuable.
"One of the great pooling effects of the Internet is that scattered people who don't know each other can exchange information with facility," he added. "We gain from work other people have done."