DanvilleSanRamon.com

Newsfront - November 23, 2007

Forget the homework assignment? Find it on the Internet

Virtual outreach gives access to assignments and grades

by Natalie O'Neill

New technology is putting parents in the loop.

The school district is piloting an online communication tool that keeps students, parents and teachers connected and up-to-date on assignments and grades. After two months, it is already redefining the concept of homework and report cards in some classrooms.

"It has taken off. It really took us by surprise," said Rob Kessler, superintendent for the San Ramon Valley Unified School District.

School Loop is an online community in which students can ask each other questions and access "virtual lockers" for notes and projects they may have lost or missed while being absent.

Teachers, parents and students told the school board last week it makes life a whole lot easier for everyone.

School Loop provides a by-assignment grade report for how each student is doing. And parents can log-in as well.

But there could be a problem: how to pay for it.

"Here's the dilemma and it has to do with cost.... It's something that would be good for the community. How are we going to fund it in the long run?" Kessler said.

The system is expected to cost about $4 per student. If it eventually eliminates the need for paper progress reports, the district could end up saving money.

"I would suggest adding it to the parcel tax. I think it would be a big seller," said School Board Trustee Joan Buchanan.

The tool is for high school and middle school students and some elementary school students, although it hasn't yet been perfected for the younger grades.

"The feedback we've gotten is that it's not as user-friendly for elementary school students," said Christine Williams, assistant superintendent.

One high school student at the meeting explained the system helps him prioritize his time and have questions answered when he's confused.

It presents a clear timeline for when assignments are due, he said. He explained he could log on and know right away his most pressing deadline for the week.

Teachers explained they are able to spot increasing and decreasing trends in student performances with the "trends up, trends down" function. For example, if one student's grade is slipping, the teacher is able to spot that easily and give him or her extra help and attention.

The same goes for students who have improving grades. The function notifies teachers of the progress, which allows for appropriate praise and positive reinforcement.

But while the system helps solve some communication problems, it could create its own set of issues, said Trustee Rachel Hurd.

"My concerns are about teachers getting inundated with e-mails from parents, saying, 'Why is my child getting this grade?'" she said.

In the School Loop e-mail update sent to parents, the child's grade is at the top of the letter and is the first information visible. This can cause an impulsive response, especially since e-mail complaints can be sent with a quick mouse click.

Hurd suggested putting assignments up top and the current grade further down in the e-mail.

"That daily barrage creates that anxiety," she said.

At least 130 schools have used the tool, including some students at San Ramon Valley High School, Monte Vista High School, Diablo Vista Middle School and Alamo Elementary.

Other concerns ranged from the availability of household computers to how to monitor chat rooms.

"For students without computers, what are we doing to keep them in the loop?" asked Trustee Bill Clarkson.

School Loop can be accessed from any Internet site, at home, on school premises and in public libraries or Internet cafes. Schools that have piloted the system have invited parents without Internet access to use the school's computers.

School Loop is based out of Burlingame and was founded in 2004 by a former high school teacher.

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