Japanese food on the lunch menu proved to a small Georgia elementary school that folks were reading their internet page.

Patti O’Neal, webmaster at Bright Star Elementary School, had posted the lunch menu for the 500-student Douglasville, Ga., school. Checking what the cafeteria’s serving is just one of the many things parents can find on the school’s internet page, hosted by FamilyEducation Network.

“Oh, [parents] can do anything” on the web page, brags O’Neal, whose main job had been to monitor the school clinic before she volunteered to manage the web page. “Find out about field trips, weekly homework, lunch menus, important dates for each month, school rules, county rules. There’s [even an] eMail address for every teacher.”

About that lunch menu. Seems folks were planning to visit the school for its open house on a day when the cafeteria planned to serve teriyaki beef. But the “f” and the “r” are right next to each other on a keyboard, so what was posted for everyone to see was “teriyaki beer.” And boy, did the office clerk-turned-webmaster hear about it.

“Oh yeah, we heard about it” from dozens of people, chuckles O’Neal in her honey-coated Southern accent.

How many people notice a typo in the lunch menu is just one way schools can gauge whether parents are reading their web pages. For already, the internet is changing how schools communicate with parents.

Better student achievement goes hand in hand with improved communication with parents, any education researcher will tell you. But anyone who’s ever heard the annoying drone of a busy signal when trying to contact a school at quitting time knows how difficult such contact can be.

Changing school habits

Most experts think it’s not a question of whether schools will be communicating with parents via the internet, but how and how soon. In 1998, 89 percent of U.S. public schools and 51 percent of U.S. classrooms had internet access, according the latest federal figures.

Many schools are posting not only lunch menus and announcements, but homework assignments, individual student grades, and attendance.

“We may, indeed, get the internet in classrooms before telephones,” says Jim Hirsch, a member of the executive board of the nonprofit Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

Some schools and districts are venturing into cyberspace on their own with web sites hosted by a district server. Others are joining online communities—such as FamilyEducation Network (FEN), The Lightspan Partnership, or nSchool.com—which provide a template schools can use to create and maintain school web pages, without having to learn HTML or web programming. Still others are using third-party grade and attendance software packages that include an online component.

“Being on the internet changes how a school will interact with the local and national community,” says Elliott Levine, communications director for Lawrence, N.Y., Public Schools. “It sets up a series of expectations on how you are going to communicate.”

Schools, like companies, will have to find ways to change their work habits to accommodate that scrutiny. Educators will have to choose whether to have advertising or not, whether to hand out teachers’ eMail addresses, whether web sites can be secure enough for student data, and whether to allow students the same access to information about them as parents.

Experts say some schools haven’t chosen wisely so far.

“There are plenty of school sites out there [where] it would be better if they turned off the switch,” Levine says. “That’s one of the reasons why major, major companies have not gone into the web. They know they are not ready, and that’s okay.”

Too many schools “want to do a web site because they want to be able to say they have a web site,” he adds.

eMail that waits a month for a response isn’t going to speak well of the school. And yet, just having eMail has the potential to alter communications dramatically, says Hirsch, who also is executive director of technology for the Plano, Texas, Independent School District.

“For many teachers, eMail is the number one mode for receiving a request from a parent,” says Hirsch.

Plano, which hosts its own web site, has put internet access into all 3,500 classrooms of the 45,600-student system and given each staffer an eMail account. The district’s goal is for someone to respond to parental requests within 24 hours, Hirsch says.

Still, the value of more traditional modes of human contact is not lost in Texas, for Plano encourages teachers to respond by telephone or a face-to-face meeting.

But many school districts don’t want to distribute teacher eMail addresses to parents, Hirsch says, just as some don’t want to disseminate telephone numbers.

“When we first put eMail out, no one knew what impact it would have on a teacher’s daily life,” says Hirsch. Online grades, accessible daily, may not match a teacher’s normal work style, which may include updating a gradebook at the end of the week.

“I’m going to guess that, on average, from conversations I’ve had with teachers, eMail access to teachers … adds about 15 minutes [to their] day,” says Hirsch.

While that means teachers have to carve time from something else, Hirsch points out that “we’re getting more work accomplished than before.”

Lawrence, N.Y., communications director Levine thinks schools ought to concentrate more on communication than technology. The basic act of setting up a web presence “isn’t that hard,” he says.

“The problem is, everybody is putting this in the hands of technicians who don’t know how to communicate,” says Levine. That’s just like putting the print shop staff in charge of writing the newsletter.

“And what is there different about the web than the newsletter?” he asks.

Levine also complains that some schools have confused the information superhighway with the animation superhighway and created graphic-rich sites with “not a stitch of meaningful content.” One such site had a page with 200K of graphics that took 2.5 minutes to load.

“If I were a parent in that community, I’d be [upset],” he says.

The commercialism factor

Levine and some others are concerned about commercialism on free web sites, such as FamilyEducation’s school network, which he says do nothing more than “sugar coat ‘school communication’ as a method of building hits for a web site and selling ads.”

Jean Armour Polly, a former librarian and author who coined the term “surfing the internet,” says she, too, is concerned about school-endorsed internet sites with loads of advertising.

“It is teaching consumerism to have all those banners in your face and getting mall bucks for doing your homework, encouraging people to stay on and on in chat rooms, and seeing more ads,” says Polly, who maintains the netmom.com web site.

But cash-strapped schools that have signed up for free web sites aren’t complaining. Claudette Rowe, vice president of FamilyEducation affiliate MySchoolOnline.com, says more than 9,000 schools participate in the company’s online programs, which include free web building tools, web site hosting, eMail addresses, and an hour or two of initial training, plus ongoing support and training.

“Not all schools can invest in technology,” says Rowe.

Bright Star Elementary’s O’Neal is thrilled with FEN and isn’t concerned about advertising. If the site had charged, the school probably wouldn’t have a presence on the web.

“I can’t say enough nice things about those folks. For Yankees, they’re not too bad,” she jokes.

MySchoolOnline.com is considering eventually enabling schools to post individual student information, such as grades and attendance, as well as expanding the content to offer more academic help, Rowe says.

Bright Star Elementary doesn’t post grades, and O’Neal is cautious about putting the whole name of children on class lists. She only puts full names and photos of children on the site “with parents’ permission.”

Based largely on FEN’s success, one company that offers schools commercial-free, subscription-supported web site hosting has jumped into the free, advertising-supported web business as well. Last year, The Lightspan Partnership launched a site offering schools and teachers free web site hosting with on-screen sponsorship, according to Winnie Wechsler, a Lightspan executive vice president.

Lightspan, which makes curriculum-based content for the Sony PlayStation, has been marketing the internet-based Lightspan Network, a subscriber service. The network offers online delivery of lessons and a learning search section with more than 115,000 web sites that have been reviewed and ranked by educators.

While Wechsler says it’s too soon to tell how the two services will coexist, the subscription service does offer value-added features, including content tailored to particular state curriculum standards and the ability to customize content.

But thousands of teachers already make use of Lightspan’s free web site service, called PageOne, including Lori Davis.

Davis, a teacher at Princeton Elementary School in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, has used Lightspan’s PageOne feature to post pictures, important dates, and to highlight web sites for parents and students.

“Grandparents from all over the country love Class Album,” she says. “They enjoy seeing children’s work, even though they may be far away. So does my mom, who lives in Oklahoma, and my aunt, who is a retired school teacher.”

A mandate for change

While some educators argue over whether to make individual student data available to parents over the web, the Utah legislature ended the debate last year. Under Utah’s 1999 Digital State law, Utah schools must “make reasonable progress” toward making a student’s grades, progress reports, teacher eMail addresses, and other information available on the internet by July 1, 2002.

The law also directs schools to set up sites that will let teachers, PTAs, and administrators communicate and post school calendars, schedules, teaching plans, curriculum guides, and media resources online.

Vicky Dahn, coordinator of curriculum and instructional technology for the Utah State Office of Education, says most of the state’s 40 school districts are well on their way to making all of these services available, and some are already there. About 45 percent of the state’s districts are using web-based administrative software “with great success,” she said.

Dahn’s office also has a program that is “essentially free to districts” that will provide parental access, and she expects about 40 percent of the state’s districts are, or will be, using that program as well.

Utah’s new law pushed the Cache County School District into using nSchool.com, a sponsor-supported free web site. Judy Gibbons, district technology specialist for Cache County, says nSchool.com lets parents have access to school calendars and lesson plans.

When students needed more than 1K of space for eMailed assignments, nSchool increased the capacity to 3K for everybody. The company also has provided training materials for teachers, parents, and students, says Gibbons.

Some teachers, already burdened with too much to do, have complained, “Don’t make us do more.”

“But they had no choice,” Gibbons explains. “This is required by law.”

While nSchool.com won’t provide grades and attendance online, Gibbons says she thinks computerized student information systems will be able to handle that. However, Gibbons admits this system will require “a bit of duplicate data entry,” which won’t be popular with time-strapped teachers.

Lindsey Cook, president of nSchool.com, says his company plans to release a new version this month with better content.

The nSchool.com sites are financed by education-related sponsors, such as books or tutorial sites where teachers or students can earn credits for online courses. If a child were struggling in algebra, for example, the site might offer the parent the option of a for-pay algebra tutorial.

Other options include test preparation programs to help students pass college admissions examinations or the end-of-course examinations, such as those given in Texas, that are becoming increasingly popular around the nation, Cook says.

Posting grades and attendance

While some schools and vendors aren’t interested in having individual student data online, others say it’s the key to meaningful content.

Lee Wilson of Chancery Software, which is launching an online component to its student information system (SIS) called K12Planet, says individual student data is much more likely to connect with parents than the generic information most school sites offer.

“I don’t care about generic information,” says Wilson. “I care about how [I can] help my kid.”

Several companies that offer SIS software—Excelsior, Chancery, NCS, Parlant, PowerSchool—have a head start in making grades and attendance available online.

Their systems prevent teachers from having to keep two sets of records: gradebooks on paper and on computer. Most, if not all, of these systems enable schools to alert parents, counselors, and teachers of absences, academic problems, and disciplinary actions automatically.

“I wish I had this when my boys were younger,” says Cache County’s Gibbons, a mother of five. “One of my children failed a class, and I wasn’t notified until the term ended.

“My son had been telling me that assignments were not due. But he didn’t want to do them. This way, I will know that, before it’s too late.”

The results of putting individual student data on the internet can be astounding. In one instance, a serviceman stationed in Alaska was using Excelsior’s Pinnacle system to monitor his son’s and daughter’s progress at their school in Florida.

“He was calling his kids [and] saying, ‘What happened today? I got your latest report and I noticed your math grades have really dropped,'” says Don Zaggle, director of marketing for Excelsior Software.

The system also allows principals to look at trends, to see if students seem to be doing better in one particular teacher’s class than in another, or if girls are doing better than boys are. That information can be used to help teachers or students, Zaggle points out.

Pat Punches, principal of White Mountain Junior High School in Rock Springs, Wyoming, enjoys using a similar feature of another brand of software, PowerSchool. Punches uses PowerSchool to see if teachers are giving assignments, marking attendance, and maintaining gradebooks.

“It’s available for me to use as a way to determine whether or not someone is up to snuff,” says Punches.

Punches thinks putting individual student information online is a powerful educational tool: “When an adolescent comes home and says they either didn’t have homework or they did it at school, a parent no longer has to rely on the child’s word.”

Every Monday morning, the PowerSchool system generates a report of every student who is academically ineligible to play sports. Although the system initially declared some students ineligible because teachers hadn’t completed their grades, those students ultimately were declared eligible.

Students who aren’t eligible can’t participate in any games until the following week, and only then if they raise their grades.

One Monday, only eight of 20 eighth-grade basketball players were eligible. A few managed to get notes from teachers who admitted the problem was theirs. By the following Monday, only two were still ineligible.

“They did get a wakeup call,” says Punches.

In the 5,000-student Rock Springs, Wyoming, school district, 80 percent of parents regularly use the system to keep tabs on their children’s academic progress. About half of all parents do this via the internet, says Tom Biedshied, the district’s technology coordinator.

When the school system in this blue-collar Wyoming mining town piloted the program last year, Biedshied says, there was a lot of apprehension.

“When you launch this kind of software, you’re opening the doors wide open to the public and saying, ‘Here’s how we do business on a daily basis,’ which is historically not the way schools operate,” says Biedshied.

The information has radically changed parent-teacher conferences. This year, at the end of the first quarter, most parents walked into class with a print-out in hand. Conference night became more of a social night and an opportunity for parents to find out about what was happening in class, rather than focusing on student progress.

Biedshied says the program has actually saved the district money, cutting the $25,000 annual expense for producing grade reports down to about $6,000 in maintenance, since all grading and reporting is done by computer. The district opted to dispense with mid-term progress reports, since parents can get the same information online or via phone.

About 1,500 schools nationwide are using ParentLink, a product of Parlant Technology, which has produced a new version of the software that allows parents to get grades, attendance, and class registration information either online or by telephone. The cost, depending on the size of the school, ranges from $5,000-$20,000 but averages $10,000, says Parlant’s Charles Rogell.

ParentLink is a hit with parents at the Bellwood-Antis School District in Pennsylvania, where 99 percent of parents surveyed after a parent night last fall felt they were more involved with their children’s education after using the system.

Seven out of 10 parents surveyed thought their children’s performance improved after they started using ParentLink, and three out of four respondents use the internet to access the system one to three times a week.

Embedded in the highly favorable parent comments, however, were a few complaints about online grades not matching report card data, underscoring the importance of keeping the information accurate and updated.

Privacy concerns

Some people worry that posting individual student data invites problems with privacy. Joel Gedalius—a 17-year-old North Woodmere, N.Y., student who’s designed web pages for a record label, a chocolate distributor, and the community newspaper, among others—thinks most schools aren’t yet equipped to post individual student data on the internet.

“Transmitting student grades, records, and other such information over an internet connection presents a very real security hazard,” says Gedalius, who has been the student webmaster for the Lawrence, N.Y., public school system since eighth grade. “There is no such thing as a truly secure flow of information, and it is imperative to disseminate student information in a private manner.”

Zaggle says his company’s accessed Pinnacle server acts as a firewall, so there’s no way that a student can change data in a teacher’s gradebook. Not that some students haven’t tried, he says.

Once, in a school that will go unnamed, administrators were puzzled when teachers’ grades were disappearing. They reasoned the only way this could happen was if someone could get into a teacher’s computer.

“Sure enough, we found this student in a classroom where a teacher had left a computer open. The student was making changes,” says Zaggle.

The story doesn’t end there. After the school punished the student and announced who he was, the student, who happened to be involved with sports, went to his coach and said, “Coach, do you mind if I use your computer?”

The coach agreed, until he remembered the student’s disciplinary history and pulled the plug. Zaggle says the school has corrected the problem.

In fact, Zaggle says his company’s 13-year experience in school administrative software means it has encountered—and fixed—a lot of problems.

To prevent tampering, NCS’s ParentCONNECTxp puts its online data in a read-only file, and parents are issued passwords and urged not to share them to protect the privacy of the information. The system links into NCS’s SASIxp student administration software, used by some 12,000 schools, and allows parents to go online and get information about their school, student assignments, attendance, discipline, and academic subjects, according to NCS spokeswoman Tamara Dutch.

The password is not given to the child, says Dutch, although some parents may use the system with their children.

But a competitor, Chancery Software, has the opposite philosophy. Maintaining that students should have access to the same information as parents, students will get passwords to Chancery’s K12Planet.

K12Planet links information in an electronic SIS to the internet and also links parents from various schools who may have a common interest, such as parents of students with attention deficit disorder (ADD), so they can share resources and tips.

Next month, Chancery plans to ship K12Planet software to every one of the 14,000 North American schools—including the entire state of Hawaii—using its MacSchool or WinSchool administrative software.

The new software will enable those schools to post administrative data, such as grades and attendance, on the internet through a secure server hosted by Exodus. The server will automatically upload the data from MacSchool or WinSchool as frequently as schools desire (typically once per day), meaning no extra effort is required to keep the site updated.

K12Planet will post individual student data to the internet from a mirror site, created from a copy of the original data, which should prevent crafty students from manipulating their grades.

“Even if someone got through the firewall, they are not going to be able to affect real data,” Wilson says.

Wilson cautions that schools can encounter problems when they start exporting and importing student information into web portals.

“What happens when the back-end company changes the file format? Let’s say, all of a sudden you have 12 new attendance codes. How does the system handle that?” he asks rhetorically.

Including all parents

What about those who don’t have access to the internet? Many school sites offer no options for these parents. Some others—like Chancery, Excelsior, PowerSchool, and Parlant—have programs that translate internet data into voice data, enabling parents with telephones to access some of the information they could not get on the internet. Cook, from nSchool.com, says his company is considering adding this voice application as well.

Chancery’s system also enables teachers who broadcast a message to produce “carbon fiber-based communication” or printed letters to parents without internet access, Wilson says.

Excelsior’s Zaggle says reaching parents without internet access might involve getting businesses to sponsor internet kiosks in banks, churches, and supermarkets in the future.

The good news for schools who have waited until now to get into the technology is they have the potential to post the most up-to-date sites, says Plano’s Hirsch. School districts that invested in technology in the mid-80s are forced to solve more problems, such as translating the software.

“The last in is almost the first out,” says Hirsch. Most software purchased now, he points out, is “already ready to access the internet.”

Bright Star Elementary

Consortium for School Networking

Lawrence Public Schools

Plano Independent School District

Utah’s 1999 Digital State law

Jean Armour Polly’s Net-Mom site

Sweetwater County School District #1 (Rock Springs, Wyo.)

Bellwood-Antis School District