Parents’ ability to track student grades, attendance by smartphone has growing app-eal

09/02/2014 12:00 AM

09/02/2014 7:08 AM

Folsom and Rancho Cordova parents can look up their children’s grades straight from their smartphones. Natomas parents can check whether chicken pot pie is on the cafeteria lunch menu and find bell schedules.

Not far off, they might learn instantly when their children ditch class or receive an F.

As landlines and paper handouts disappear, local school districts are experimenting with new ways of reaching families. At Folsom Cordova and Natomas Unified school districts this year, that means launching an app that allows parents to keep tabs on their children almost anywhere and anytime.

“I would want to know (what they are doing) during school hours and after-school hours,” said Kumika Jackson, who has a sixth-grader and an eighth-grader at Mills Middle School in Rancho Cordova and plans to use the app.

Local districts for years have allowed parents to use a personal computer to check report cards and track attendance. But as parents gravitate toward smartphones and tablets, districts are trying to adapt.

“The more we reach parents where they are, the better,” said Dan Cox, an Iowa school superintendent who co-wrote an article this year in the Journal of Educational Administration on how districts are using technology to communicate. “The days of sending a newsletter home are over. We have become so accustomed to instant access to information that schools have had to adapt accordingly.”

He said such tools help parents become more involved in their children’s education.

“I think they are more connected, and that is the thing they are wanting,” Cox said.

The push for instant information has been big business for app designers in recent years. SchoolMessenger, which designed the Folsom Cordova app, added 100 districts to its client list this school year. Three hundred districts use apps from the Los Gatos-based company – about 40 percent of the market, said Nate Brogan, SchoolMessenger senior vice president.

Folsom Cordova Unified chose SchoolMessenger to produce a customized mobile application after a survey of 4,000 parents and employees last year found that 77 percent of parents would use the app, district officials said.

There is no cost to the 19,000-student district for three years, because it is helping the company test the new app, said Daniel Thigpen, district spokesman. The Folsom Cordova app has 1,000 users, including families and staff, Thigpen said. The district is promoting the app during back-to-school nights, as well as on its website and through social media.

Parents in the Mills Middle School office during the first week of class weren’t yet aware of the new app but were excited once they heard about being able to check student grades and attendance from a mobile device.

Angela Byrum said she logged onto the school website every day last school year to check in with her son’s teacher, look for absences, peruse bell schedules and fill out lunch forms. She and her husband used the site weekly to check her son’s grades to determine if he had earned the privilege of going out with his friends on the weekend.

“Parents are able to see what’s going on with kids,” said Byrum, as she downloaded the app. Her son Akoni Medeiros is a ninth-grader at Cordova High School, next door to Mills Middle School.

Cox said instant communication with parents allows them to ensure that failing students catch up before the end of a semester, “when they can’t do anything about it.”

David Brazer, a Stanford University associate professor of education, warned that attendance and grade reporting are prone to human error.

“We have an obligation to make sure it is as accurate as it is fast,” he said.

Though Brazer likes the idea of providing timely information to parents, he said parents can lose confidence if they receive alerts that report their children are absent when they are not or if teachers fall behind in entering grades.

Natomas Unified, a district of 13,500 students, paid ParentLink $24,000 this year to design and license the district to use the app, which it rolled out just last week. The figure includes an initial fee of $4,500, as well as additional ongoing costs of $1.50 per student per year, said Jim Sanders, Natomas Unified district spokesman.

“It’s a soft launch,” Sanders said, adding that the district is still working out some bugs. “The idea is to get people to start downloading it.”

The Natomas and Folsom Cordova mobile applications work on all smartphones and tablets and are available free in GooglePlay and Apple’s App Store.

Although information desired by parents is similar across the country, each district can customize its applications. Natomas Unified, for example, has added district job openings and agendas for school board meetings, while Folsom Cordova Unified offers links to district social media sites, maps and sports scores.

Parents can customize their apps, deciding which schools and news to follow, among other things. In Natomas Unified, parents can decide which of 67 languages they want their information delivered in.

School districts are able to send push notifications that alert parents to emergencies such as a school lockdown or important upcoming events. Users in the Folsom Cordova district received their first push notification this month reminding them of the Aug. 13 first day of school.

Seventh-graders Gavin Sullivan and Andrew Cicco said their parents use the mobile app on their phone to check their grades and homework assignments.

Gavin, 12, said he doesn’t mind.

“I think it’s good,” he said. “My parents should be able to tell me if I’m doing bad. They can tell me so I can do better.”

Andrew makes use of the app himself.

“I check it sometimes before I go to school to see where I need to get my grades up,” he said. The 12-year-old said this practice has helped him improve his grades – especially in English.

Folsom Cordova’s app makes student information more accessible to families, Thigpen said. He said many parents who lack a laptop or Internet service at home rely on smartphones to access the web.

“This is a tool that crosses socioeconomic barriers,” he said.

Parent-notification apps have been big business for only about two years, Brogan said. ParentLink and SchoolMessenger have traditionally been in the business of emergency alerts and notifications, usually via email or phone lines.

“In a very real way, this allows you to carry a piece of your child’s education with you,” Sanders said. “We think it is the wave of the future. It melds technology and education, which is always a priority for a parent.”

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