Engaging parents

No more parent-teacher conferences: Why one Colorado school district is going with an online data system instead

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

A school district north of Denver is doing away with the traditional parent-teacher conferences this year, instead urging parents to log in to a website to find out how their children are doing.

The Commerce-City based Adams 14 school district says it made the change in an effort to squeeze in as much instructional time as possible. The 7,500-student district — where almost half the students are English language learners and about 85 percent qualify for subsidized lunches — has long struggled academically and is under a state-ordered improvement plan.

Frustrated parents and teachers, however, said in interviews with Chalkbeat that the new online system is either confusing or incomplete and can’t replace face-to-face interaction.

“Teachers would tell me at conferences what I needed to help my son with, they would tell me how he was behaving and everything they did in class, like what they were studying,” said Carolina Rosales, a mother of two elementary school kids. “The portal might tell me he failed an assignment, but what does that tell me?”

The system the district introduced this year is called Infinite Campus, a commonly used parent portal program in schools. In addition to weekly grades, parents who log in can get information about specific assignments and attendance, district officials said. The site can be accessed on a computer or smartphone.

“What we know is that the information available to a parent through the parent portal is much more robust than what they were able to get through a parent-teacher conference,” said Janelle Asmus, the spokeswoman for Adams 14. “We believe this is going to be better over time.”

Asmus said there are 1,267 accounts for parents on the district’s Infinite Campus system. Officials believe there may be others who are using alternate names that the district can’t track.

District-wide, parents did not receive information about the elimination of conferences and the switch to the online system. Many parents said they found out through word-of-mouth, as they started asking why conferences hadn’t been scheduled.

Asmus said that if parents are concerned about not getting face time, they can still reach out to teachers and ask to meet with them.

Elementary school teacher Jodi Connelly, who is also a union representative at her school, said that she’s had several parents this year asking to talk to her before or after school.

“They want to have that conversation with a teacher, but it doesn’t replace the actual conference,” Connelly said. “My Spanish is OK, but not great, so I have to take time to find someone to have a phone call with me.”

Barb McDowell, president of the teachers union, said teachers are stuck trying to find time on their own to talk with parents, often after hours when they aren’t being paid. Teachers and union leadership want the district to continue parent-teacher conferences, she said.

“All the teachers are really frustrated,” McDowell said. “We want to meet with parents. We send texts. We call. We try to have conversations. But at the same time, teachers know if they start doing it, it’ll just be expected of them.”

The district says it doesn’t have data on how many parents in Adams 14 attended conferences when the district held them. Asmus, however, said many times teachers were spending hours preparing for conferences only to sit waiting for parents who didn’t show.

Connelly said her records show 98 percent of families attended conferences in her classroom last year. McDowell, a teacher at Kearney Middle School, said participation does drop in higher grades. But she stressed the need for conferences, citing an example from a conference she had last year.

One of her students was having issues and hurting herself, and in talking with the student’s parents, Connelly was able to help. This year, the student “is doing great things,” she said.

“It’s powerful when we know there’s communication back and forth,” McDowell said.

The district is rolling out several changes this year as part of their plan to improve its state rating, including new district observations of schools and using a consultant to help train teachers and provide curriculum resources.

Several other metro area districts have used Infinite Campus for years, and still schedule parent-teacher conferences. But using the system is an adjustment for teachers, district officials say, and they wanted to free teachers from another responsibility.

“We aren’t like all the other districts,” Asmus said. “They aren’t in turnaround. They aren’t having to make the changes we’re trying to make in an expeditious manner. People can only take so much change in one year.”

On Aug. 11, before the school year started, the district did designate a “parent-engagement day” where principals could choose activities to better involve parents.

At least one school used the August day to teach parents how to use Infinite Campus. Other schools held a more traditional back-to-school day. The next one is set for Jan. 9.

The district also has been trying to build parent engagement by increasing the number of home visits teachers do each year.

Teachers and experts say those are helpful in building relationships with parents. But because teachers aren’t supposed to talk during home visits about a child’s academics or school behavior, it doesn’t replace the value of a conference, they say.

Across the country, a handful of school districts have tried eliminating parent-teacher conferences. But experts say that even if parent-teacher conferences aren’t the best way to fully engage parents, doing away with them eliminates an important communication point.

“Generally speaking, everyone believes parents need an opportunity to meet with their child’s teacher,” said Steven Sheldon, a research scientist and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. “I personally find this policy decision troubling. I feel like it is creating greater distance between the schools and the families that they’re serving and they’re really putting the onus on parents to get all the information.”

Sheldon said research on parent teacher conferences as a way of engaging parents is limited, but plenty of research exists about online parent portals.

“What researchers have found is people who are using parent portals tend to be the more highly educated or more affluent families,” Sheldon said. “Often times portals can be a greater source of inequities. Families with poor or no access to the internet are cut off from that information.”

The rollout of the Infinite Campus system could create inequity in another way.

This year, the system is only producing report cards in English. The district, under a federal order to better serve students and families who are not native English speakers, let each school create its own cover sheet to send with the report cards giving parents information on how they could request a translator or an explanation of the report card if they needed it.

Asmus said the system will be updated over time so report cards can be produced in other languages.

The language barrier is also one reason some parents want a face-to-face conference with their child’s teacher.

Guadalupe Castro, a mother of a student at Adams City High School, said she has not been able to meet this year with any of her child’s teachers, or with the school principal. She has an account with Infinite Campus, but hasn’t actively used it.

“I don’t understand it,” Castro said. “There’s a language barrier, so for me it’s more comfortable to talk in person. My thought is that it was the only space we really used to find out how our kids were doing. And most of all, for me it was about building that trust with the teacher so that I could collaborate with them and they could get to know me and know that I’m accessible to support them.”

District officials say they are gathering feedback now on the change, but Castro said she wished they had asked parents about it before.

“No one asked me if I agreed with this or not,” she said.

community input

Group studying Adams 14 recess recommends 20 minutes, training, and new equipment

Adams 14 must prioritize making time for at least 20 minutes of recess, and also should invest in more play equipment and train its staff in developing policies for the unstructured time, a committee has reported.

A group of parents, teachers, and staff convened to research the issue of student play time, urged the school board to provide more play time for children. The advisory group was named after an uproar earlier this year when the district reduced recess times to add more instructional time.

“One of the questions that was asked several times was, ‘Where is the time going to come from?’” said committee member and grandmother, Connie Bonnell. “Well, the time has always been there. Recess has always been a part of school.”

The team was made up of three parents, a grandparent, two teachers, and an administrative assistant. They met weekly in April to talk about the issue and to craft the recommendations.

The group told the school board at a meeting Tuesday that they felt recess was important enough to schedule daily, so that students can expend energy and return to class ready to learn. The committee said the district could still benefit by learning from experts on the topic and asked the district to seek a partner to plan recess and train staff.

The group added that their discussions often focused on safety concerns.

“If you have 500 kids on a playground that’s only equipped for 200, you have a problem,” Bonnell said.

In complaining about the cuts to recess, teachers had reported that classroom behavior problems increased after kids were denied free time to play. Parents also complained that recess for students with disabilities was often even shorter because they sometimes take more time getting through a lunch line.

School board members asked the committee a handful of clarifying questions, including whether the group had looked into whether a 20-minute block was better than splitting the time into two segments.

Committee members said they did like the idea of scheduling two 10-minute breaks, but still wrote the recommendation simply asking the district to provide “at least 20 minutes of recess (non-academic physical activity) during the school hours.”

Superintendent Javier Abrego released a statement applauding the recommendations work and said they would “be the foundation for constructive changes benefitting our children and staff.”

“I am pleased to share that through the advisory committees efforts, the curriculum and instruction team has reviewed the elementary school instructional day and have developed options for how to incorporate recess/physical activity time without compromising instructional time, which we plan to implement for the 2018-19 school year,” he said in the statement.

The group’s last recommendation was to have the District Wellness Committee evaluate how recess might relate to social-emotional learning policies and then monitor the district’s progress on the recommendations. Abrego’s statement said he would ask the wellness committee to “review and operationalize” the recommendations.

Note: The story was updated with the statement from the superintendent. 



Momentum

Sheridan school district picks new leader in split decision

Pat Sandos talks with board members Daniel Stange (left) and Karla Najera. (Courtesy of Sheridan School District)

A newly seated fifth member cast a deciding vote in Sheridan on Tuesday, as the school board selected an inside candidate to lead the tiny metro district – breaking more than a month of indecision by what was previously a four-member board.

Pat Sandos, one of three finalists named in March, will become superintendent in July. He currently leads work around security and mental health for the district as executive director of schools services and student behavioral and emotional supports. He is also the son of the first Denver Hispanic City Councilman, Sam Sandos.

New board member Juanita Camacho, who had a few weeks to review the candidates, cast the decisive vote, along with board members Bernadette Saleh and Sally Daigle.

Finding a replacement for current superintendent Michael Clough has been a contentious process, that has included shouting at board meetings, and emotional community backing for Antonio Esquibel, a Denver administrator who was called “inspirational,” and seen as more likely to introduce needed changes. Some parents, students, teachers, and community members have complained that the district ignores them and isn’t doing enough to improve school performance.

Some also pointed to Esquibel’s Hispanic background to say he might also be a better advocate for Sheridan children, 88 percent of them children of color, up from 81.9 percent in 2010.

Sheridan, a district of about 1,400 students, improved enough on state ratings in 2016 to get off the state’s watchlist for chronic low performance and to avoid state sanctions. But by many measures, including graduation rates, the district is still below state averages.

Some board members said that Sheridan has been improving and said they favored an internal candidate because they didn’t want to stop the district’s momentum.

“Because I’ve built relationships in the district, we can hit the ground running,” Sandos told the school board at his interview last month.

The board initially named three finalists in late March and wanted to name a new superintendent by mid-April, but deadlocked right away.

On April 11, the board president appointed Camacho, who acted Tuesday as a tie-breaker. That board seat had been empty for more than 12 years as no one in the outlined neighborhood corresponding to the seat had expressed interest.

The Sheridan board will vote on a proposed contract for Sandos at a later meeting. The job listing stated that the starting salary would be a minimum of $150,000 plus benefits.

Clough, who had moved to part-time years ago, has a contract with an annual salary of $63,654 for 140 days of work.

Sandos acknowledged the controversy in the process after the vote.

“Without question, Sheridan has made major strides of late — but we all know there is plenty of work ahead,” Sandos said in a news release. “The process brought some strong opinions to the table, and I certainly hope we can tap that passionate support for Sheridan students and turn it into positive momentum.”