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Skyward: going paperless

By Katherine Sather

Parents of students in the Mercer Island School District now only need an Internet connection to check their children's daily attendance, schedule and in some cases, grades.

The district recently opened its online student database, through a software system called Skyward, to families of children in secondary schools. It's one of several electronic programs the district has adopted in the past year to improve communications with families and use less paper, or ``backpack mail.''

Communicating electronically with parents is part of a nationwide trend pushed by the No Child Left Behind Act, said Terry Hippenhammer, executive director of technology services at the Puget Sound Education Services District of which Mercer Island is a part.

``What you're starting to see in a lot of new student information systems is the ability to gain access to data so parents can be more involved in their students' successes,'' he said. ``That's been the bottom line of the No Child movement, to work with each kid to help them meet standard. When the parent is involved, that ends up being the critical link.''

The Washington Schools Information Processing Cooperative, a systems provider based in Everett, provides the Skyward student information program to 171 districts in the state. In addition to student records, it manages human resources and payrolls for administration and costs $15.39 per student, said Jeff Conklin, executive director.

Mercer Island adopted the Skyward program in January and is one of about a dozen districts that have opened it up to families, he said. Lake Washington School District will follow suit in November.

``Online access to information about students for parents is a fairly contemporary capability,'' Conklin said.

So far on the Island, only parents of middle school and high school students can access the database, but families of elementary school students will be able to log on later.

The program should help parents stay informed, said Jennifer Wright, technology director for the district.

``We know that as kids go up in grades the information that comes home is less and less,'' Wright said. ``Using backpack mail, (information) sometimes doesn't make it home in a timely way.''

A few teachers are experimenting with posting their grade books on Skyward. High school students also used the system to register for classes online in the spring instead of the traditional bubble sheets.

Mercer Island parent Mary Bartels uses the program to check her children's attendance, grades and schedules. She finds it useful because once she logs on, she can access information about each of her three children in one place.

``It allows you to be on top of what your kids are doing,'' she said.

The district has created other online methods of communication in the past year.

Messages about school safety, school closure and emergencies are now sent on e-mails and cell phone text messages using a listserv called www.schoolreport.org. Each grade also has its own announcement listserv, so parents can receive e-mails about upcoming events. Even the PTA is getting in on the online trend.

The West Mercer PTA now invites parents to register for ParentOrganizer, an online tool which sends newsletters and e-mails about approaching events. Eventually, the West Mercer PTA would like to go ``paperless'' and send all its information using ParentOrganizer.

Hippenhammer, from the Puget Sound ESD, said that this kind of communication requires parents to be active and regularly use the Internet.

``It's push technology, with the information being pushed out to the parent,'' he said. ``It's new technology. It's coming soon.''

He said that some districts in the state are in the process of going completely ``paperless,'' with all levels of administration operating with only electronic communications. Mercer Island isn't there yet, he said.

``(Mercer Island) is in the middle of a wave. It's only going to get better,'' he said of the trend. ``You have to start with one technology before you can go to the next.''

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