All in the Family

Parents like to be in the know about their kids at school. Tests: how did they do on the last ones, when are the next ones? Homework: what is it, when is it due, and have they turned it in on time? Discipline: have they been sent to the principal's office?

Do they talk in class or disrupt others? Absences and tardiness: are they going to school and staying there?

Keeping in touch with each parent is labor-intensive, however, so schools have always had to keep interactions simple and somewhat limited in scope: a report card once a semester, an annual parent-teacher conference, yearly standardized test score results, periodic newsletters, and perhaps an occasional call from the attendance office.

But times have changed, and new technologies are transforming school-to-home communication. Possibly the most important factor driving this trend is No Child Left Behind, which requires parents be well-informed about their children and play a bigger role in helping schools develop effective academic programs (see "The Fine Print" for details).

Beyond NCLB, educators are finding great value in automating the communications process with parents. It reduces administrative burden and costs, especially in larger districts. Teachers save time — fewer calls to the home — and can automatically contact multiple individuals. It also truly improves the quality of service provided to parents, who've come to expect 24/7 access to information.

Managing the Data

Key to emerging school-to-home communication tools are student information systems. The majority of SIS offerings manage a range of data of interest to parents, including attendance records, test and quiz grades, course grades, schedules, homework assignments, homework completion, discipline tracking, calendars, transcripts, and health records. Many SIS companies offer special "parent modules" that tap into this data. Similarly, third-party vendors have developed products that work with SIS applications to make this information available to parents.

All of these systems are designed to make all of this data available without extra work by educators. For example, parents can access their children's latest test and quiz grades in real time without requiring the teacher to do anything beyond using their existing computer-based grade book.

Delivery Methods

An SIS primarily works with four technology platforms: e-mail, the Web, groupware, and telephony. Many of the available school-to-parent communication systems, whether from an SIS or third-party vendor, use more than one of these.

E-mail: Automated and group e-mail are arguably the most common platforms used by schools. The mailings may be triggered by particular milestones or events for individual students or the whole school community.

Portals: Many districts use Web portals to provide parents with the opportunity to see all types of information about their children. Parents can log on from home or work to find tidbits about their children daily or even hourly. Some districts are incorporating e-commerce technology into their portals to allow parents to pay school fees or buy school merchandise online.

Groupware: Groupware solutions, prevalent in the corporate world, are finding an equally fruitful existence in educational environments. Personal and shared calendars with group scheduling keeps students, parents, and teachers on track while ensuring private information remains private and group information is easily distributed. Administrators, teachers, students, and parents can communicate via voice, video, instant messaging, and even shared whiteboards.

Telephony: Schools are increasingly using auto-dialer technology to automatically notify parents by phone of student absences, school closings, or upcoming report cards. Current generation systems can even support interactivity, allowing parents, for example, to enter in a reason with a touch-tone phone when notifying the school of a student's absence. A new variation on this technology supports e-mail broadcasts to parent e-mail addresses instead of using the telephone.

Some auto-dialer systems leverage Voice over Internet Protocol to merge phone and Web platforms. Here, parents can call into a teacher's outgoing message to listen to homework assignments as an alternative to using a teacher's personal Web page or the daily or weekly e-mail updates.

Across the various platforms, communications often take the form of multi-platform "broadcasts." Districts can, for instance, deliver critical messages via phone, e-mail, and voicemail.

Buying Considerations

As with any enterprise product, there are baseline considerations: What's the total cost of ownership? How are installation, training, and tech support provided? How scalable is the system? Is it user-friendly for all the various users? Secure? In addition, there are a number of issues particular to school-to-home communication technologies:

What do you ultimately want to do with your communication system in the short- and long-term?
Notification systems can accomplish many dozens of school-related communication tasks, but first decide exactly what those are before committing to anything. Often a district will begin with one idea in mind, such as absence notification, then discover during setup and training that the system can do much more than they anticipated. Find out in advance what each vendor can deliver and determine your real needs from the beginning.

Which products will work with your current SIS?
Compatibility is critical. If it doesn't work with your current SIS or planned purchase, then it makes no sense. Some of the publishers sell communications modules that only work with their SIS, while some sell add-ons that work with other systems. The keys to compatibility are Schools Interoperability Framework certification and Open Database Connectivity compliance.

How customizable is the system?
Does the system have enough flexibility to allow each teacher, school, or district to pick and choose from a selection of features? Many systems are sold on an all-or-nothing basis, and there's nothing more frustrating than complicating the system with unnecessary features.

Is the student data real-time or copied from the student database?
This is important, because some products that are not directly linked in real time to the SIS rely on data that may be weeks old. Systems not adequately integrated may be updated infrequently, resulting in missed communications and frustration.

For Web portal solutions, how much student data is available for parental access?
Comprehensiveness is critical to a portal's success. Parents prefer one-stop shopping — if the information they seek still comes through other channels such as paper mail or telephone, they will not see the benefit in using the portal.

Is the system interactive?
Can parents, for example, update demographic information or complete student course requests? This is an important feature that takes a portal to the next level. It also can provide the cost justification for deploying a parent portal by reducing the cost of manual paper handling.

What features does it have for administering users?
Providing parents with greater access means your IT staff must maintain thousands of additional users. The system you choose should provide tools to mass issue user IDs and passwords based on parent data already in the SIS. It should also allow the re-issuing of forgotten passwords automatically at the user's request.

How does the system perform?
A communications module can place a significant load on a district's infrastructure. There can be high peaks of usage (early evening and at report card time, for example). The system must perform at a high level and deliver excellent response times to the end user, or parents will rapidly stop using the system.

What are the access options?
Expansion of school-to-home communication is happening across all districts-big and small, rural and urban, public and private. Providing the same type of access to this information through a telephone as you would through the Internet is both the right thing to do and, in some cases, required by law. Determine what options your vendor or district can provide to families who do not have typical computer or phone access.

Peter Weinstein, a ten-year veteran of the classroom, was director of product management for Riverdeep. He currently provides consulting through Mindful Solutions.

The Fine Print

NCLB's reporting demands offer parents insights into their children's education and the quality of schools they attend.

Title I says participating schools must afford "parents substantial and meaningful opportunities to participate in education." Part A, Section 1118 of the legislation contains specific statutory definitions for school-home communications, including conferences, progress reporting, improving achievement, understanding academic standards, and notification of all school meetings and programs.

Title II Part D, Section 2411 requires schools use "technology to develop or expand efforts to connect schools and teachers with parents and students to promote meaningful parental involvement, and to foster increased communication about curricula, assignments, and assessments between students, parents, and teachers."