Originally created 05/23/01

Software keeps track of students



LYNNWOOD, Wash. -- Is there no hope for a sequel to "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"?

Schools across the country are adopting computer programs that allow parents to check the Internet daily to see whether their kids skipped class, handed in their homework and even what they had for lunch.

A lot of parents love it because it will help them keep better track of their kids. But a lot of kids - even those who go to class and earn decent grades - think it's creepy.

"Our parents don't need to know everything we do all the time," says Brittany Tucker, a 15-year-old sophomore at Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood. "High school's supposed to be a time when you're starting to get out on your own."

Besides, it's going to keep students from getting away with some of the stuff even their parents pulled in school. Forget about the 1980s antics of Ferris Bueller, perhaps the most famous truant in movie history.

A cooperative representing 277 of Washington state's 296 school districts signed a contract this month to start bringing the technology into schools by fall 2002.

Districts in many states already have the programs, said Geannie Wells, director of the Center for Accountability Solutions at the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators.

Teachers enter information like grades, homework assignments and attendance into a Web site, where parents with a password can see it. Parents can find out what foods have been charged to their child's lunch money account and whether their children have been given detention.

Administrators say it's easier than reaching a teacher by phone, and they welcome anything that encourages parents to be more involved in their child's education.

"I would have loved to have had access to that information when my daughters were in school," says Cynthia Nelson, the technology director of the Edmonds School District. "Once they hit middle school, you don't empty their backpacks every night. All of a sudden it's like, 'Don't touch my stuff!"'

The Washington Schools Information Processing Cooperative, an alliance designed to help schools afford technology, is investing about $20 million in a system made by Skyward Inc., of Stevens Point, Wis. All of the cooperative's schools should have access to the program within five years.

The system will also update schools' administrative and accounting software, simplify scheduling and make it easier for teachers to analyze data about classes and grades.

Skyward uses the same security measures that online retailers like Amazon.com use for credit card purchases over the Internet. The system also resists tampering because teachers continually revise the site.

Despite the suspicions of students who might feel their privacy is being violated, the law clearly states that parents have a right to look into their children's' school records, said Andrew Shen of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. As long as the information posted is accurate and the system is secure, there shouldn't be a problem with privacy, he said.

Skyward has been wildly popular with parents in the Big Rapids School District in Michigan, said Joe Bouman, the district's technology director.

"They're ecstatic. We have parents signing up for the service every day," Bouman said.

In one instance, he said, parents suspected that their middle-school child wasn't eating a healthy lunch. Using the program, they found out that the child was buying fruit juice and ice cream every day.

They asked administrators to block their kid from buying juice and ice cream. Now, whenever the child shows up at the register, the computer tells the lunch lady: no juice, no ice cream.

One side-effect is that lunch lines have speeded up. Nevertheless, most of the system's benefits are for teachers and parents, who, according to some, already have all the control they need.

"It would just be another thing to stress us out," said Nicholas Anderson, a 15-year-old sophomore. "We don't need to be afraid of every step we take while we're at school."

Brittany's father, John, says he knows kids might feel that way, but thinks it's good for them.

"Brittany's a pretty good kid, but there are certainly times I wish I could keep better track of her," he said. "I think the more we can control our kids, the better off in the long run they'll be."

Fortunately for them, Brittany and her classmates will probably graduate before Meadowdale gets the program.

On the Net:

Washington Schools Information Processing Cooperative: http://www.wsipc.org

American Association of School Administrators: http://www.aasa.org

Skyward Inc.: http://www.skyward.com