By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Nancy Rein doesn't need to wait until the end of the quarter to see whether her daughter has been turning in her homework assignments or what grade she's averaging in chemistry.
The Delhi Township resident simply calls up a Web site during her lunch break, types in her password and checks on the Oak Hills High School student's progress.
"In high school, kids are pretty secretive," she said. "Outside of looking in their book bags, you're pretty much in the dark. This gives you instant information."
Oak Hills is one of an increasing number of Tristate districts investing in new technology that enables parents to log in to gain unprecedented access to all things related to their child's performance - from homework to tests to class grades to missed assignments.
Some districts are even putting students' behavior and tardiness records online for the first time.
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Cincinnati Public Schools is going a step further, investing $11.5 million over the next two years in a districtwide instructional management system that includes new computers and laptops for teachers.
Cincinnati teachers will be able to use the system to track each student's progress on every state academic standard. The program also will offer teachers ready-made lesson plans that are aligned with Ohio academic standards.
Educators say the technology encourages more parental involvement and that will in turn improve the quality of education of the district's 40,347 students. That could help improve proficiency scores for the district, which is labeled in "academic emergency" by the state.
Here's how the systems work:
Teachers keep an electronic grade book stored in their computers. The district contracts with a technology company that allows the grade book to link to a password-protected Web site. Teachers can upload their grades and other information onto the Web site.
Using a password, parents can tap into the system from any computer connected to the Internet.
No more 'dog ate my homework'
Oak Hills this fall is expanding a pilot program that began last year with a handful of teachers. Parents can look up their children's assignments, find a description of the assignment, learn how many points the assignment is worth and how many points their child receives.
Other districts expanding or adding such programs include Loveland, Sycamore, Forest Hills and Mason.
"I have had parents call me when they are looking at the screen," said Lisa Schlomer, assistant principal at Oak Hills High School. "They feel like they are getting more out of the conversation."
This year, Oak Hills will offer the technology at the high school and all three middle schools at a cost of $20,000.
Teachers using the systems can update information as often as they like.
"This has really changed the way we do business," said Kevin Thacker, Glen Este Middle School principal.
This is the fourth year that Glen Este, in the West Clermont School District, will use the system. Teachers update grades at least once a week, he said.
"Now there are very few surprises when grades come out at the end of the period. Parents know how their child is doing," Thacker said.
For some students, it's horrifying to think mom and dad can track every missed assignment.
"Oh, man. That's awful," said Natalie Lawrence-Slater, a 17-year-old senior at Wyoming High School. "I can't believe that they make systems like that. I would hate to have my parents be able to check things like that. Those are personal.
"Besides, that's what report cards are for," she added. "Hopefully, if you messed up some assignments, you can fix it before report cards come out."
Three years ago, Boone County schools launched a program allowing parents to access students' grades, discipline and attendance online. The program has expanded from one middle school to all three high schools and three of the four middle schools.
Forest Hills School District piloted such a system last school year with some teachers at Turpin and Anderson high schools posting students' grades and tests online. This year, every high school teacher will use the program.
"Our goal is to make this parent- and student-friendly and accessible at the touch of your fingers so you can have a discussion with your child immediately," said Turpin principal Peggy Johnson.
Some teachers worry the new systems will add to their workloads.
In Cincinnati, teachers are concerned they won't get the proper training to use the systems and won't have laptops that will allow them to enter the grades at home, as they would using a traditional grade book.
Pat Foreman, a math teacher and technology coordinator at Anderson High School, said Anderson teachers have been growing accustomed to the electronic grade book for three years. Last year was the first year parents could access the information online, and just for a handful of teachers.
"There are some teachers more resistant than others," Foreman said. "But once people understand the time-saving part of it, they're sold."
After teachers figure out a grading system, it's easier than using a paper grade book because the software calculates and averages the grades, she said.
"Every test you enter, every homework assignment you enter, the grade is refigured," Foreman said. "When it comes time to send in grades, it's just click and send, period."
Tech + parents = better grades
Districts say the technology is all about improving student achievement.
Cincinnati Public Schools is implementing an instructional management system this fall that will allow parents to check students' course grades and class attendance online by next year. The district also is considering putting student discipline online for parents to view.
"The more involved parents are in their child's education, the more accountable the child will be," said Jennifer Wagner, director of student information systems. "Parents can reward their children more often when good things happen and they can start to intervene when they see low grades."
Teachers and parents also will be able to track how every student is progressing on meeting new state standards. That information will be easily transferable if the student changes schools.
In a district like Cincinnati, where it's common for students to transfer, the new technology will help plot students' progress, Wagner said. Now, it can take several weeks to transfer a student's cumulative file from school to school, she said.
Though parents and students will be able to access very personal information, school officials say that security should not be a concern.
The information in Mason City Schools is located on a password-protected, secure server, said district spokeswoman Shelly Benesh Hausman.
That means students will have more trouble changing that D to a B on a report card because they can't hack into the computer system to change grades.
"They're just seeing a copy of the data," Wagner said. The original data are stored in a separate location, she said.
But the new technology likely won't spell the end for paper reports.
Loveland Superintendent Kevin Boys said he doesn't think his district's system will replace the traditional report card anytime soon, especially since some homes don't have Internet access.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just over 41 percent of households had Internet access in 2000.
But Boys thinks the student tracking technology is the wave of the future.
"It's not the gizmo or technology that makes it appealing," he said. "We like to use technology to do things that are otherwise impossible. It would be impossible for a high school teacher to call all 100 students every week and let them know their progress."
Cincinnati Public plans to designate computer stations at the schools where parents can access their students' information.
Some students say the system has benefits.
"I checked it a lot because it lets you know where you stand," said 16-year-old Emily Rein, the Oak Hills High junior-to-be whose mother routinely checks on her progress. "It's a motivational thing."
Catch up on what's new in schools
Metro: Cincinnati's archdiocese is implementing electronic fingerprinting for volunteers and employees. See what else is new in Tristate private schools.
Tempo: Kids will be wearing more retro clothes that look vintage but are new.
Metro: You won't believe how many are college-bound but undecided on a major.
Tempo: Expert tips on how to improve homework skills. And in Food, how to pack lunches kids will love.
Metro: Learn what the rising Hispanic population is doing to English-as-a-Second-Language programs.
Tempo: See what high-tech gadgets students will be toting to school this year.
Metro: More schools are requiring uniforms and enforcing dress codes.
Tempo: How to survive a tricky relationships: the college roommate.
Metro: Check out the newest programs that train students about such high-tech topics as health and bioscience.
Metro: As Tristate schools face tighter budgets, booster clubs raise thousands.
Forum: The concept of high school is changing, and Cincinnati is a center of experimentation.
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