Schools in Washington state are adopting a computer program that allows parents to check the internet every day to see whether their kids skipped class, handed in their homework, and even what they had for lunch.

A cooperative representing 277 of Washington’s 296 school districts signed a contract this month to start bringing the technology into the state’s schools by fall 2002. Districts in many states already have the programs, said Geannie Wells, director of the Center for Accountability Solutions at the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators.

Teachers enter information such as grades, homework assignments, and attendance into a web site, where parents with a password can see it. Parents can find out what foods have been charged to their children’s lunch money accounts and whether their children have been given detention.

Administrators say it’s easier than reaching a teacher by phone, and anything that encourages parents to be more involved in their child’s education is a blessing.

“I would have loved to have had access to that information when my daughters were in school,” says Cynthia Nelson, the technology director of the Edmonds (Wash.) School District. “Once they hit middle school, you don’t empty their backpacks every night. All of a sudden it’s like, ‘Don’t touch my stuff!'”

The Edmonds district is a member of the Washington Schools Information Processing Cooperative, an alliance designed to help the state’s schools afford technology. The cooperative’s executive director, Jeff Conklin, says it is investing about $20 million in a system made by a company called Skyward Inc., in Stevens Point, Wis. All of the cooperative’s schools should have access to the program within five years.

The system also will update schools’ administrative and accounting software, simplify scheduling, and make it easier for teachers to analyze data about classes and grades.

To save money, the cooperative chose a database solution from Progress Software instead of the industry leader, Oracle. This shows that less well-known companies have products that can fit the needs of schools at lower prices, said Adam Zand, a spokesman for the cooperative.

Parents love the system because it will help them keep better track of their kids. But a lot of kids—even those who go to class and earn decent grades—think it’s creepy.

“Our parents don’t need to know everything we do all the time,” says Brittany Tucker, a 15-year-old sophomore at Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood, Wash. “High school’s supposed to be a time when you’re starting to get out on your own.”

Despite the suspicions of students who might feel their privacy is being violated, the law is clear that parents have a right to look into their childrens’ school records, said Andrew Shen of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. As long as the information posted is accurate and the system is secure, there shouldn’t be a problem with privacy, he said.

Skyward has been wildly popular with parents in the Big Rapids School District in Michigan, said Joe Bouman, the district’s technology director.

“They’re ecstatic. We have parents signing up for the service every day,” Bouman said.

In one instance, he said, parents suspected that their middle-school child wasn’t eating a healthy lunch. Using the program, they found out the child was buying fruit juice and ice cream every day.

They asked administrators to block their kid from buying juice and ice cream. Now, whenever the child shows up at the register, the computer tells the lunch lady, no juice, no ice cream.

While many kids might object to being limited to chicken patties or sloppy joes, or to having their friends buy their junk food, there is an upside: Swiping meal cards and reading bar codes speeds up the lunch line, Bouman says.

Nevertheless, most of the system’s benefits are for teachers and parents, who, according to students, already have all the control they need.

Brittany Tucker’s father, John, says he knows kids might feel that way, but it’s good for them.

“Brittany’s a pretty good kid, but there are certainly times I wish I could keep better track of her,” he said. “I think the more we can control our kids, the better off in the long run they’ll be.”

Besides Skyward, other companies offering similar products include Chancery Software, NCS Pearson, Powerschool, and Administrative Assistants Ltd. (AAL).

Links:

Washington Schools Information Processing
Cooperative
http://www.wsipc.org

American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org

Skyward Inc.
http://www.skyward.com

Chancery Software Ltd.
http://www.chancery.com

NCS Pearson
http://www.ncspearson.com

Powerschool
http://www.powerschool.com

Administrative Assistants Ltd.
http://www.admassist.com

Progress Software Corporation
http://www.progress.com