Any parent will tell you that getting information from children is an uphill battle as it is, let alone when the subject involves how they're doing in school.
But the days of being caught out of the loop appear to be dwindling as more and more school districts offer parents the opportunity to track their child's progress via the Internet.
MEDFORD SCHOOL DISTRICT
EAGLE POINT SCHOOL DISTRICT
CENTRAL POINT SCHOOL DISTRICT
The Medford School District, for example, created a Parent Access Link (PAL) on the district Web site and had its first login in January 2004. Initially for secondary schools, the district branched out to the elementary level with a pilot program for some schools in 2007 and has expanded the program this year.
All schools should be up and running with the PAL program by next fall, according to Rich Miles, Medford schools elementary education director.
"I know this has really helped in communication between schools and parents," says Medford Superintendent Phil Long. "In my own experience, it's also really helped the communication between parents and kids. In an age when we're all pulled away in different directions, it's really helpful when you can get information easily and in a timely manner."
To gain access, parents in the Medford district must fill out a short registration form and then personally deliver it to their child's school office with photo identification, because PAL involves confidential information. After that, parents receive an e-mail with their password and a link to PAL after complete verification of the submitted form.
So long as your e-mail address doesn't change, access to your child's school records will continue from elementary to middle school to high school without filling out another form.
Once online, parents have access to information on their child's attendance, grades and classroom assignments, as well as fines and fees.
When Andee Bylund first heard of the program, she didn't hesitate to sign up.
"I didn't think I needed to, I just wanted to," she says. "I just thought it was a good way to make sure your kids are keeping on top of things at school."
She began using PAL when her oldest son, Alan, was a seventh-grader at McLoughlin Middle School, and she still finds it valuable now that he is a sophomore at South Medford High.
"I think it's a wonderful tool for parents," says Bylund. "You can see your kids doing their homework at home, but did they turn it in? You don't always know, and I've heard from other parents how they've had problems with that, where those assignments are not always turned in. With this, you know."
Providing a forum to keep parents informed and ensure direct accountability was a prime reason PAL was instituted in Medford.
"This is one of the things that has helped parents be more supportive of our kids staying on track," says Long. "Our goal is to get kids through and get them graduated with a credible education, and that daily accountability is how you build a knowledge base to help that occur."
Bylund says she typically checks the site every two or three weeks, potentially more toward the end of every grading period.
"Alan's a good student, so I really don't need to go on daily," she adds.
The PAL site is pretty straightforward once you get logged on, says Bylund, and these days teachers have become more adept at keeping the information current.
"There have been a couple teachers that are a little slower than others, but most of them try to get everything updated within a week, so it's pretty current," she says.
Long says the transition to an online grade book was initially difficult for some teachers, because there really isn't a universal way teachers document progress in their classrooms. Assignments can be weighted on a different scale, and an in-class quiz certainly is easier to get graded and online than a five-page English paper.
"PAL did not make my life easier, but it made it easier for parents and I don't spend a whole lot of time on it," says Riki Bednar, a sixth-grade teacher at Jacksonville Elementary. "There's that accountability factor with it, too, that's really important. Once you get into middle school and high school, it can be really beneficial."
Besides allowing parents to track a child's progress, the system allows parents a way to contact teachers, either by e-mail or telephone.
"Before this, parents would have to navigate coming down to the school and then find out exactly who to talk to and when that was possible," says Long. "This allows parents to get answers to questions before they even need to go that far.
"It helps ease the conversation, too, because it's more efficient. You're not asking the school employee to do all the detective work, it's all right there for you."
That first-hand dialogue can be especially helpful in ensuring that your child's grades don't fall too far beyond repair.
"What we have seen is the parents are more pleased because they're more on top of what their kid's doing — day to day or week to week — instead of only at the end of each grading period," says Long. "That's really important because a lot of stuff can happen between those times and sometimes the student can dig a hole well before the trip-wire goes off."
While the system can help identify problems, it also helps reinforce positive progress, which is beneficial in the educational process, Long says.
"My conversations with my daughter and son aren't always bad," he says. "It's great to be able to talk about what your kids are doing and be able to praise them, too. Weekly recognition doesn't always come, so I see a lot of benefit toward the student-and-parent relationships when you can do that."
Adam and Andee Bylund's other son, Alex, is in Bednar's sixth-grade class, and they are also able to track what's going on in his classroom through a Web site she and fellow sixth-grade teacher Jim Finnegan created through teacherweb.com in 2001.
"Every year there's somebody who says, 'I'm so glad you have a Web page,'" says Bednar of the parent resource site that includes assignments, long-term project breakdowns and helpful links. "They're very grateful."
Bednar says she and Finnegan each pay a yearly fee for the site, which started at $25 apiece and has risen to $39 apiece this year.
"It's easy for us to maintain once you've gotten it established," she says.
While such teacher-based sites aren't the norm, it certainly shows the direction districts and teachers are taking to improve the educational experience for all involved.
Bylund says Alan, 15, even uses PAL to track his own progress, a situation that seems to be increasing at the high-school level, Long says, and which illustrates how open access is being embraced by most students, teachers and parents.
But not all.
"I think for any of us, when there's a level of accountability we aren't comfortable with, it's going to be that way," Long says of potential nay-saying students unhappy with PAL. "But really, once it becomes part of the culture, I think that's just what is and you move on."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org