A parents' homework helper - online

One night last week, my 10-year-old son sat down to finish his homework. He opened his school binder and started to look through a tangle of papers.

Five minutes later, he looked up with alarm in his eyes. "It's not here. I forgot my math questions at school." While I'm happy to say that my son gets good marks at school, he's also a bit forgetful. This is not the first time this has happened.

In the past, I might have lost my cool. Or spent hours phoning other parents trying to figure out how to get a copy of the problems. But not anymore.

I simply went to my computer, logged on to the school's website, found the Web page for my son's teacher, located the math problems in question, and printed them off. No more missing homework.

The technology age has finally come to my town. I couldn't be happier about it.

Just before the start of the school year, my local school district installed Edline. It's an online system created by a company in Chicago that uses the Internet to allow teachers, parents, and students to communicate in a more efficient way. Edline has been around since the early part of this decade, so we're actually a little behind the curve in my town.

Edline, and similar products like eBoard and MySchoolOnline, work alongside schools' websites and allow parents to access school information. In its promotional material, Edline says "interested parents can log on using a unique password and get information about their child's grades, school news, assignments, upcoming school-related activities, and schedules."

According to the National Center for Education Statistics' most recent report (it only covers up to 2003 - an eon ago on the Internet), almost 100 percent of America's schools have Internet access. Ninety-five percent of public schools have broadband access, 88 percent have a website, and about 75 percent update it monthly. Today, you can bump up all those figures a bit.

There isn't much data available on the number of schools that allow parental access to their websites or have a system like the one in my district. But based on the number of testimonials posted on the websites of the companies listed above, that number is surely growing.

It's easy to see why. School websites are no longer seen as frills - very busy parents expect there to be one, and expect it to have the information they need. Schools aren't rolling in cash these days, however, so systems like Edline, eBoard, and MySchoolOnline offer a way for schools to use technology to improve communication at a reasonable cost and with relatively little time invested. Prices for systems range from several hundred dollars to about $2,000 per year.

I'd love to tell you that people in my school district took to the new system like ducks to water, but unfortunately, that didn't happen.

Some teachers, like my son's, were almost immediately comfortable online. Many already had some online experience: Private companies like Scholastic have offered teachers the chance to have Web pages for several years. Other teachers have taken to it more slowly. My daughters' teachers are just starting to see the benefits of using the Internet to help students and parents.

It's going to take a couple of years for parents and teachers to feel comfortable with the system. And since it is a school, there will be a constant stream of "newbies" learning to use the system.

But to say that Edline had made my life - and my children's lives - run more efficiently is no exaggeration. Not only can I access the homework my son or daughters may have forgotten, but I have also discovered that teachers respond quickly to e-mail. It saves time for both parties. Earlier this year, I was able to quickly clear up a problem my son was having at school with a couple of e-mails. I didn't have to schedule a conference or go down to the school.

My children, however, have mixed feelings about my new access to their school projects, reports, and homework. A couple of weeks ago, one of my daughters was a little under the weather, so I kept her home from school.

"Can I watch TV, Dad?" she asked.

"Sure, honey," I said as I went to the computer to go to her class website. "Right after you finish today's homework."

I won't tell you about the look she gave me.

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