School's Innovation Helps Parents Track Success

Jenkintown School District heads to the 'cloud' with parent and student programs

For Carolyn Riley, setting up a parent-teacher conference at her kids’ Jenkintown, Pa. school that worked with her schedule required strategy -- and speed.

“There would just be a mob scene in front of these sign-up sheets to get the later time,” said the mother of two, who works full-time as an adviser at Drexel University. “If you didn’t, like, bum-rush that sign-up sheet to get the 7 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. time slot, you’d have to leave work early.”

But that was the past. Now, scheduling a time can be done with a few clicks from her University City office – through the Jenkintown School District’s online ‘Parent Portal’.

“You pick your teacher and then a list comes up…of the dates and times that are available during conference week and you just click in there and reserve the spot,” she said. “I don’t think it could get any easier.”

Riley likens it to using Open Table to snag restaurant reservations -- adding only downfall is a lack of reward points.

Online parent-teacher scheduling is just one of many digital tools the 630 student strong Jenkintown School District has rolled out to better connect with parents and streamline processes.

In the elementary school, instead of sending home a folder full of paper forms and letters with students, the school digitized the documents.

“Parents can log in and download the things that would typically be sent home,” says district Director of Technology Jim Cummins.

Scores from athletic events are tweeted to the community and Facebook posts remind parents about fundraisers. Principals from the district’s two schools record weekly video updates that are posted to YouTube.

“We’re giving them all sorts of means in which to get information from us,” says Cummins. He says the social activity has even slightly increased attendance at some district events.

The technology also allows parents to stay on top of their students’ academic progress.

“They can see their kid’s grades in real-time, assignments, they can sign up for daily messages of assignments, if they were handed in, if they were absent, if they were late to class,” says Cummins. Parents can sign up to receive academic update emails every morning, week or month.

Riley, whose 17-year-old is in his senior year and 11-year-old is in 6th grade, calls the communication “remarkable.” She says she’s more informed about her sons’ performance than ever before.

“I’ll get home from work and my son will be there and I’ll go ‘What happened with the physics test?’” she says. “You get that daily communication and then you can take action.”

Technology is also being infused into the curriculum and everyday life inside Jenkintown’s schools. Cummins says they’ve implemented cloud computing for students grades 4 through 12. Google apps let kids work on papers, presentations and projects in class on notebook computers or at home.

“We’re using it for everything from peer editing and reviewing of essays to science experiments, writing up your science report,” he says. “A lot of teachers are actually grading, within the container of Google Apps so there’s no paper. They’re trying to go as paperless as possible.”

The school’s cloud computing is being touted as a model for other institutions. Cummins and a fellow Jenkintown teacher are presenters at Google’s Apps for Education summit at Kean University in March.

Staying on the cutting-edge can be hard financially though, especially when it comes to upgrading hardware. Cummins says a number of the district’s notebook computers are showing their age. The computers were purchased as part of a grant through Pennsylvania’s Classrooms for the Future program.

Cummins says they’ve been slowly replacing the devices, but thinks there’s another approach. It’s called “BYOD” or Bring Your Own Device. The high school’s senior class will pilot the program in the coming weeks – bringing in their own computer or tablet.

Students will need to connect through the school’s WiFi network to ensure their internet traffic travels through the district’s web filter.

“We’re trying to empower them to use the technology wisely,” Cummins says.

And while the technology acts as tools to help students and parents, Cummins says there’s still no replacement for some low-tech social networking.

“Still the best line of communication with the teacher is to pick up the phone and say ‘Hey, my student isn’t doing too well.’” 

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