Despite Privacy Questions, School District’s New Online Parent Communication System Almost Ready

Despite Privacy Questions, School District’s New Online Parent Communication System Almost Ready
The landing page for the new parent information website
Laura Rappaport

October 28 2012

If you haven’t been able to find your child’s grades online yet, you are not alone.

The Saratoga Springs City School District is in the process of changing its electronic parent-teacher communication system, and it’s been a slow transition.

Officials expect the new system to be fully running by Wednesday at the high school and middle school, while elementary students will have to wait until December to access SchoolTool.

All fall, however, parents have had to keep up with student grades the old-fashioned way: by checking with their child or contacting a teacher directly. Last week, some middle school students brought home print-outs of their grades so far this quarter, which ends in two weeks, on Nov. 9.

Most Saratoga Springs parents and students are accustomed to using the Edline system for grade updates and communicating with teachers and school staff.  Now the district is adding this second mechanism.

SchoolTool will be the place to check grades, schedules, attendance and discipline records. Edline will be geared toward academic information.  Assignments, class news, links, hand outs and other information will continue to be found on Edline. It will also be the way to reach teachers and other school staff.

Parents will access SchoolTool though the “Parent Portal” link on the district’s website.

Both systems are as secure as it gets in this digital age, says Carl Strang, who, as Capital Region BOCES deputy district superintendent and chief academic officer, handles contracts for many regional schools districts’ student management systems. (Strang formerly managed IT for the Saratoga Springs school district.)

In addition to grade and attendance records, SchoolTool stores student photographs, birth date, school identification number, address and phone number. While the system isn’t fool-proof, Strang says many safety measures are in place to stymie would-be hackers.

“We take the security of information about our children very, very seriously,” Strang says.  “It would be much, much easier for people to get information or pictures about their children from other sources,” such as Facebook or other social media outlets.

Current teachers, guidance counselors and the school principal all have access to student information. Strang says that having the child’s photograph makes for a more personal interaction. For example, he says, teachers – and especially principals – have so many students that they don’t always associate a name with a face. Now when they pull up the student information they can actually see who they are taking about.

But cyber-security experts say schools and parents must stay aware of the risks inherent in storing personal information digitally.

“There is no system that’s immune from hacking,” says Tena Friery, the research director at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego-based consumer information and advocacy group. Friery says that in 2012, her agency tracked 42 data breaches of education systems nationwide. A school system in Canada recently fell victim to a student hacker. Even the Pentagon system has been hacked.

“Parents have a say in what the school does with personal information of their children. If parents have legitimate concerns, schools should address those concerns.”

In regard to including students’ addresses and phone numbers in such a database, Friery says: “You might as well give a map to your front door.”  She adds that parents should have the ability to opt out of the program.  (A reporter who requested to do so has not received a response from the district.)

Both BOCES’ Strang, and Friery emphasize that digital systems are here to stay.  “We have to recognize that in the digital world there are threats that might not have been in our old, non-digital paper world,” says Friery.

The city school district contracts with two separate companies for Edline and SchoolTool, says David L’Hommedieu, Saratoga’s assistant superintendent of information technology and operational innovation.

For Edline, the district pays Jackson Software approximately $13,000 a year. About 20 percent of this is refunded through the U.S. Department of Education, funded in turn by a surcharge on telecom companies.

For SchoolTool, the district pays about $110,000 to Mindex, a Rochester-based company, through Carl Strang’s group at BOCES. It receives about 40 percent of that back the following year from state aid, L’Hommedieu says.

SchoolTool will streamline record-keeping for teachers, who now need to input grades just one time. But it does mean parents and students have to check two places – one for grades, and one for notices from teachers. L’Hommedieu has hopes to merge the two systems in the future, but for now, families will have to look at two sites.

The district is focusing on getting parents on SchoolTool first and then will give students access. So, students shouldn’t be surprised if their parents have access, but they don’t.

L’Hommedieu says all middle and high school parents should have access to SchoolTool by Oct. 31.  Elementary schools will be linked by year’s end. Families will receive a new username and password to use the new system. Families with more than one student in the district will have just one password for all of them. Families should wait until after Oct. 31, or confirm the system is in place, before adding additional users to an account.



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