North Stonington parents can monitor child's classwork with click of a finger

With a simple click, Amy French - at home, work or on her cellphone - can find out how her 13-year-old son, Bryan Kimball, did on an exam or if he turned in his homework.

French is on PowerSchool, a "Web-based student information system" used by the North Stonington School District. She scans through Bryan's different courses, checking his grades or emailing a teacher. It's 24/7 access to all information concerning her eighth-grade son.

"I use it at least three or four times a week. I use it all the time," Kimball said. "It's been very, very helpful. It's been wonderful."

PowerSchool is one of many student information systems used by districts, and is part of a trend that is reshaping the way teachers, students and their parents communicate.

While most laud the program for its role in increasing parental participation in their children's studies, it may also be responsible for what some area educators say is a drop in attendance at in-person school events.

In North Stonington, where the district is beginning its second year using the system, Wheeler High School Principal Chris Sandford said there's been a major increase in parent and teacher communication, but "face to face contact has dropped significantly and the electronic medium has taken over that contact."

"It mirrors what's happening in society," Sandford said. "I love that there's more communication, it's just different. They can email back and forth when before it was so structured. I don't think it's a bad thing, it's just a sign of the times in education."

Sandford said that last year, each teacher averaged about five parent meetings during report card night, a time when parents can come to speak with teachers about their children's grades. That number was down from an average of 15 to 20 parents per teacher just a few years ago, Sandford said.

"Long gone are the days when it was a surprise what you're child's going to get on a report card," said Natalie Pukas, North Stonington superintendent of schools.

Scott Brown, a coordinator of regular education initiatives at the regional educational service center LEARN, said several area high school principals also indicated that fewer parents were showing up to participate in events on campus.

"I think we're in a transition phase in parent-school communication because of the growing electronic capabilities of the schools now," Brown said. "The irony is that last year, the state mandated two parent open meeting nights a year for each school. It makes it less necessary to bring in parents more frequently because they can get the information electronically. It sounds like a good idea that's five years behind the technology."

Brown did say that high school parents are generally less engaged in their children's studies because they are older and more independent, but as the technology becomes the norm, it could expand.

"It's not unlike texting: It's quick and convenient," Brown said. "The engagement may not be deep and in the age of technology, a lot is superficial, quick."

It's not just student's schoolwork, either. Where once children were sent home with important copies of information for parents or newsletters, Brown said there are now email "blasts" to parents that make sending and receiving information much easier.

And the North Stonington school district, among others, utilizes ConnectED, a program that calls more than 1,000 telephone numbers with important information, from school closings to safety notifications.

Just last month, superintendent Pukas used the system to tell parents of a lockdown at all three schools while police searched for a suspect nearby. Pukas said she gave other updates throughout the day using the system, which the school has used for the past several years.

"I was humbled by the overwhelming response I've gotten from the parents, and that they were appreciative of the whole way it was handled," Pukas said.

Parents, like French, are quickly finding real benefits with the communication systems. She said she'd still like to attend report card nights and that PowerSchool could even help her son academically because she keeps up on his work.

"We look together and talk about it," French said. "It's enhanced my relationship with him. Before I would get progress reports in the middle of the year and now I know constantly.

"I do think he'll do better because of PowerSchool. He knows I'm on him more so now, I say 'let's sit down and look together,' and we do," she said.

s.goldstein@theday.com

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