When Adrienne Damsky wants to check up on her 13-year-old son’s grades and make sure he’s completing his homework assignments, she doesn’t call his Boca Raton, Fla., middle school or plan a parent-teacher conference. With Omni Middle School’s online system, Edline, all Ms. Damsky has to do is log on to the school’s Web site.
“It’s easy to get on to. All the grades, all the homework is right there,” Ms. Damsky said. “If your child is failing, you know why.”
Thanks to such computer programs, students around the country can no longer hide missed homework assignments, failing grades, and lapsing attendance. With online programs, both commercial and school-created, parents have found a better way to keep tabs on their children’s progress.
“What we’re seeing is that parents are loving this. It gives them a way of being involved on a daily basis in their child’s education,” said John Bailey, the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational technology. “One of the best ways of improving student achievement is involving parents. This type of service is something every single school around the country should be offering.”
More than 1,000 schools subscribe to Chicago-based Edline, said Jay Alter, Edline’s vice president of marketing. It typically costs $2 to $3 a year per student. “The payback for schools can be fairly immediate,” Mr. Alter said.
Schools in the Pioneer Central School District in Yorkshire, N.Y., use a system called ParentCONNECT to provide parents with homework assignments, period-by-period attendance records, grades, and discipline reports, said Skip Tillinghast, a spokesman for the district. About 700 parents have registered for the program since the 3,100-student district began using it two years ago.
“It’s one of the things we like to tout as a tool for parents to get involved in their child’s education,” Mr. Tillinghast said.
Registered parents are immediately alerted through e-mail if their children miss a homework assignment or get in trouble. To protect family privacy, most programs require parents to have a password to access a student’s records.
Proponents say that technology can help parents solve some frustrating school-related problems.
When Soorena Salari’s 8-year-old son kept forgetting his homework assignments three years ago, Mr. Salari knew he had to do something. “With my background in technology, I said, ‘This is no more,’” he said.
Mr. Salari created a Web site called yourhomework.com so that students at his son’s elementary school in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., could view their homework assignments online. Before long, teachers and school administrators throughout California, and the nation, were calling to request the service. Now, more than 600,000 students and about 1,400 schools use yourhomework.com.
Teachers can post homework on the site for free. Parents and students have the option of either a free or paid subscription. With the free service, they can look up individual classes to get homework assignments, but do not need a password.
The paid service, which is called yourlocker.com, costs $29.95 a year and allows students and parents to get assignments by e-mail, view all classes on one Web page, participate in chatrooms, and decorate a virtual “locker.”
Mr. Salari compares yourhomework.com to a personal digital assistant—the small, hand-held computers used to store addresses and phone numbers, calendars, and the like. “Kids don’t have that kind of tool,” Mr. Salari said.
For Mark La Porte, a teacher in Lake Elsinore, Calif., the best part of his school’s student-information Web site, called TitanWeb, is that it allows parents to get a peek into daily classroom life.
“The idea is for parents to know what is going on in the class,” said Mr. La Porte, who is the history department chairman and technology coordinator for the 2,800-student Temescal Canyon High School.
Through TitanWeb, parents and students can download forgotten worksheets, e-mail a teacher, and view the school’s activities calendar.
Despite the growing use of student-information Web sites, some school officials say they prefer the old-fashioned note sent home or a parent-teacher conference. And not all parents, after all, have access to the Internet.
Some critics also have argued that such Web sites shift the responsibility of remembering schoolwork from the student to the parent.
Others, though, like Mr. Tillinghast of the Yorkshire schools in New York, say the online programs simply enable parents to ensure that students are fulfilling their own responsibilities. “It makes them accountable for the commitments they’ve made in school,” Mr. Tillinghast said of students.
In the rural Cody-Kilgore district in Cody, Neb., school officials stopped using their online-access program after two years, because it was not personalized enough for their needs, said Gena Hoffmann, the technology coordinator for the 163-student district.
Many students have one-of-a-kind schedules that could not be translated into a Web program, Ms. Hoffmann said. Also, the district’s computer server could not handle e-mail.
“Parents know if a student’s having trouble. We just get on the telephone,” Ms. Hoffmann said. “Instead of e-mail, most of our parents would like a one-on-one conversation.”
Even if the technology suits a district’s needs, it can be extremely time-consuming. Teachers have to update the Web sites daily or weekly in order for them to be of use to students.
As technology creeps more and more into classrooms, some administrators say that keeping track of students’ grades and homework by computer is just another tool for parents.
“It will never replace a parent-teacher conference. Certainly the computer doesn’t know the child,” said Connie Tuman-Rugg, the principal of Florida’s Omni Middle School.
Her school, with about 1,330 students, began using Edline three years ago, after Ms. Tuman-Rugg received complaints from parents who said it was hard for them to stay in touch with their children’s multiple teachers.
Since the program’s implementation, phone calls to the school have decreased by 75 percent, the principal said. Omni Middle School spends about $3,000 a year on the program, which markets itself as a content-management and communications tool that allows schools to consolidate access to all their software online.
“It really, really has been beneficial to parents,” Ms. Tuman-Rugg said. Before Edline, she said, “of course, their children said they were getting straight A’s. The party’s over.”
While some students may be less than thrilled about the programs, Omni 8th grader Ashley Neider said she loves Edline’s convenience.
“Now I can keep up with my grades. I think it’s great because if you think you didn’t do well on a test, you’re not just totally left in the dust on how you’re doing,” Ashley said. “My group of friends love to check it. Then we ask, ‘What did you get?’ and we’re so proud of each other.”
While the Web sites may not change students’ approaches to schoolwork, they give parents more insight into their children’s academic world, educators say.
“I don’t know that it encourages students to do their homework and get better grades, but it gives the parent the opportunity to encourage them,” said Ms. Tuman-Rugg. “It’s a no-lose situation. How can information about your own child be anything but beneficial?”
Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.