Parents of Dixon Middle School students in Provo, Utah, now can track their children’s homework assignments, test scores, and attendance via phone or the internet.

The tracking system, called ParentLink, became fully operational at Dixon just weeks ago, and it makes the school one of the first public schools in the country to offer so much information to parents online.

“This will free up teachers to spend more time on individual student development and improvement, and it will help us reach our goal of increased parent involvement,” said Bob Gentry, the school’s principal.

Improving accountability

The ParentLink system is the product of Dixon’s partnership with Parlant Technology, a local company. Gentry said his school began working closely with Parlant six years ago to develop a way to give parents up-to-date information about their children’s grades and assignments.

“As a parent, it’s frustrating when you ask your child, ‘Don’t you have any homework tonight?’ and your child answers, ‘No,'” said Gentry. “We wanted a system where parents truly could be kept informed.”

“This puts more power into parents’ hands,” echoed Gene Paulsen, the system’s administrator. “Students can’t hide their progress reports any more.”

Paulsen, who also teaches vocational education at Dixon, said he has more than 180 students.

Trying to stay connected to all the parents used to be overwhelming. “Now all I have to do is put in their grades, and they’re available to parents and students almost automaticallyÐ24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said.

When teachers enter their students’ grades and attendance into an electronic gradebook, the ParentLink system loads this information on a central server, where it’s stored and transmitted over phone and internet lines. Parents can call or log onto the system using their child’s student ID and password any time of day to monitor their child’s progress.

Teachers are required to update their student records at least once every two weeks, Gentry said, so parents will have access to the latest indicators of their child’s learning.

“The response we have received from our students and parents has been phenomenal,” Gentry said. “Everyone is so excited about the new system.”

The security issue

Posting grades and attendance online is a practice that might become commonplace within the next few years. Yet for now, the security of such a system has a few people concerned. Mike Aldrich, president of Aldrich Computer Services Inc. questions whether posting grades online is the right way to notify parents of their children’s performance.

“I’d love to know what my child’s homework assignments are online, but for notification of how she’s doing in class, eMail would be better,” said Aldrich. “My feeling is if you could do this by eMail, it would solve some of the privacy issues involved with posting that information to a central source.”

In response to the issue of privacy, Gentry pointed out that Dixon’s system offers two levels of securityÐa student ID number and a passwordÐand noted that the password can be changed any time at a parent’s request.

What about the possibility that a computer-savvy teen could hack into the system and change his or her grade? Paulsen said the files stored at the central server are read-only files protected by Novell Netware security. He couldn’t say unequivocally that a security breach is impossible, but he did insist the chances of it happening are slim.

“As far as security goes, I think we’ve got a pretty good system,” Gentry said.

Wave of the future

Gentry pointed out that teachers are still encouraged to send out progress reports and maintain traditional contact with parents. “Just because we post the grades over the phone and the internet doesn’t mean that parents will always take the time to access them,” he said.

But it’s a great step nonetheless, he added. “How do we motivate students to really care? By having parents who really care. And how do you get the parents more involved? By keeping them informed.”

Dixon continues to work with Parlant Technologies to add features to the ParentLink system, such as more detail on missed assignments. Meanwhile, according to a press release from Parlant, more than 100 schools plan to implement the system by the end of this year.

Parlant isn’t the only company to develop such an online information system for schools. Educational Technologies, a software company in Raleigh, N.C., recently announced plans to release its own version of the technology as part of a total package for administrators called Advantage 2000. Marble Thomas, a company representative, said, “We see this as the wave of the future.”

Dixon Middle School

http://www.dixon.provo.k12.ut.us

Parlant Technology

http://www.parlant.com

Educational Technologies Software and Services, Inc.

http://www.etss.com

Aldrich Computer Services, Inc.

http://www.aldrichcs.com

Novell

http://www.novell.com