Wired schools help keep parents in the know

If Cori Capik forgets to jot down a math assignment, she no longer squanders an evening by calling classmates who might also be clueless. With a few clicks of her laptop mouse, the eighth grader at Miami's Palmer Trinity School can easily track down that homework assignment - or any other one she might have missed. And while she's at it, she can peek at her current grades, check the date of her next science quiz, or download the middle-school dance schedule.

Her mom, meanwhile, has all of the same access. Several times each week, Cherri Capik takes full advantage of the Edline software, which her daughter's school implemented about three years ago, by simply visiting Palmer Trinity's website and entering her password.

"This keeps me from asking every day about her assignments," she says. "Now we can bypass that conversation, and I can still be supportive."

Although students at Palmer Trinity, a private middle and high school, are largely from affluent families, they are not necessarily part of an elite club. Every year, more schools across the United States, both public and private, are joining the online world with websites that post news about school events and also allow parents and students, via confidential passwords, to access teacher comments, test results, and grades.

As this phenomena is still relatively new, statistics about how many schools are wired for parental access are hard to come by, says Don Blake from the US Department of Education. But the National Center for Education Statistics did determine in 2002 that 99 percent of public schools have access to the Internet, 86 percent of those schools host a website, and 68 percent of those update this website at least once a month.

Interviews reveal generally positive reports about American's increasingly wired classrooms. Even teachers, for whom frequent updates about students' work means more recordkeeping, are enthusiastic. For them, it can also mean less phone tag with parents, fewer surprises when it comes time for parent-teacher conferences or report cards, and the ability to deal with problems faster.

"This is a wonderful change," says Steve Laredo, a history teacher at Nantucket (Mass.) High School. "It allows parents to really know what is going on and support their kid's learning. It also removes any doubt or conflict, since the students know their parents know what the deal is, so they're less likely to try and scam their parents."

Cherri Capik puts it another way: "The only bad news is for kids. They can't make any more excuses."

For some families, Internet access to information makes it possible to monitor and more quickly correct behavior problems.

Maria Derife became concerned when she heard that her granddaughter's grades were slipping. Although she lives in Rhode Island and the girl goes to school in Florida, Ms. Derife did some online sleuthing. Not only was she able to determine that her granddaughter was regularly skipping classes, but she was even able to learn exactly which classes were being cut on which days - information she quickly shared with the girl's parents, who put an end to the problem.

And when students are out ill, such systems don't allow them much slack, as it's typically expected of those who have this kind of access that they will keep up with missed work. But many wired schools also provide extra help with Web links to reference research sites or a teacher's e-mail address.

The degree of involvement on the teachers' part varies with their interest and technological savvy; some opt to spend hours posting photos concerning homework, illustrations, maps, charts, and Web links and others just do the minimum that's expected of them - typically posting grades and comments every few weeks.

Still others like Bob Barsanti move everything possible onto the Internet. His interest in creating a wired classroom began while teaching high school English in Texas. "When you teach Moby Dick in the middle of Texas," he says, "the students have no grasp of the ocean or whaling, so you have to bring in other material. For things like this, Web links are a really useful tool."

But he didn't stop there. Most recently, while teaching English at Nantucket High School, Mr. Barsanti used the Internet to create a more open, transparent classroom, he says. This involved correcting papers online as well as posting student work on his website, where their peers and parents could read it.

"Most of the time, students write a paper for the teacher, and a teacher just slaps a grade on it," he says, "but if that paper is put on the Internet, others can read it and learn from it. This pushes kids to be a little more responsible."

He sometimes assigned students 300-word book reports, which their peers could evaluate in 100 words - all of which was posted on his website.

This degree of interaction and openness is the best use of school websites, says Ron Verdicchio, an education professor at William Patterson University in Wayne, N.J. "Sometimes this new accessibility means parents and teachers end up talking past the student," he says. "But if it can promote a dialogue that includes the students, then it's a good thing. It's critical that students are part of this discussion."

Sometimes this three-way dialogue produces dramatic results. "I have seen several cases during recent school years," says Mr. Laredo, "where communication between class and home has been a deciding factor in a student's success. This is particularly true for kids who tend to underachieve despite a lot of ability.

"Having consistent communication between school and home, which the Internet now facilitates, can mean the difference between an F and a solid C for these kids."

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