School portal – How to Improve the Parent Experience

A lot of schools offer a Parent Portal. Some portals are more robust than others but they all seem to offer these features:

  • Check their child’s academic progress
  • Check out school events (athletics, groups and clubs alike)
  • Pay for fees

Sounds good right? Well, yeah, but sometimes parents don’t use the portal. Why don’t they use it and is that a bad thing. I’ll talk about our portal and my thoughts.

My School’s Portal

Let me tell you about what parents can do in our portal. Unlike other parent portals I have seen, ours is pretty modest.

As you can see parents can access information about their children (of course) and here is what everything else does:

  • Groups – This gives parents quick access to their and their child’s groups. Those could be parent groups, athletic groups and clubs
  • Resources – This is link page. It uses icons that give parents quick access to important information. That could be to pay their tuition, a list of study tips, etc.
  • News – This is a summary of all news and announcements from their groups or their child’s classes.
  • Calendar – Pretty self explanatory
  • Directories – This is where parents can look up contact information for other members in the school community.

That’s it. That is all it does. We also have the ability to assign certain school forms through the portal so the parents can login here and take care of that.

The portal is all hosted in the cloud and for us, we get limited options on how to customize it.

The Problem?

Well, the problem is that not a lot of parents use the portal on a regular basis. We can talk about why that is and I would also like to explore is that such a bad thing? Let’s get into it.

Some parents do not like the portal – plain as that. They find it not very organized or easy to navigate. This, unfortunately, is not something we can control. Another reason parents have given me is that the portal is used differently from one grade to another. Specifically, they are referring to grades that are in different divisions. For example, the difference between 4th grade and 5th grade. 4th grade is in our lower school and 5th grade is in our middle school. The problem is in middle school the students travel from one class to another with a dedicated teacher for that discipline. In 4th grade, they see the same two teachers for all core subjects and there is a lighter homework load. So, it is understandable that these two grades use the portal differently and parents can sometimes not like that.

Then there are inconsistencies within the divisions themselves of how the teachers use the portal. For example a 1st grade teacher uses it differently than a 4th grade teacher. This is also understandable as 1st graders have very little homework, while 4th graders have homework almost every night.

However, there is something to be said for consistencies in the portal. Regardless of grade level, all portal pages have the same options. They all have the same sections, they all start with similar layouts and having some more consistencies about what information should go where could be a good thing.

Now, that is the why – but is it a bad thing that parents don’t access it on a regular basis? Hmmm – I think it is but hear me out about my hesitation. Parents should know what is happening in the classrooms academically and where they are at in the curriculum. This information leads to better reinforcement at home and this usually translates to better understanding in the classroom. This is undeniably good.

Do parents need to log in every night though? Maybe not. Maybe the portal should be treated like a reference book. Reaching for it when needed, like a dictionary or encyclopedia. So when would those times be? Perhaps at the end and beginning of a unit. To check up on major assessments and projects. Maybe if their child is struggling. I don’t have the answer but I wonder if this would work better for most.

Purpose of the portal

The portal is a hub of information for the school. The information will center around their child but then there is also school information as well, but if you think about it a little more – the portal is also a training exercise. Schools are using the portal to train their parents (and older students) that if you want/need info about our school, athletics, classes or groups then this is where you need to go.

It is here to train them to keep up with their child’s schedule and academic performance and also important events and actions they need to complete (signing a permission slip for example). Like any good training program – consistency is key. Without it, the program fails and I think that is the situation my school finds itself in. We have an OK portal but the consistency isn’t there . . . yet.

Ask

I think it is important to ask the stake holders (parents, students, teachers) about how they use the portal and what they would like to see out of it. While there will never be a perfect portal that all three stake holders agree on how it is used, trying to make it as accessible and streamlined as possible is still a valiant goal.

With that in mind, ask how these people are using the portal. Create survey’s and listen. What I have found is that you can very often hear one person say they use the portal in a certain way and then you will hear another person say they use it in a completely different way.

What you are looking for here are common threads. Again, it won’t make everyone happy but we are looking for a streamlined and consistent experience for the students and parents and with enough feedback hopefully you can start shaping the portal to your school’s needs.

I’m working on a survey right now and when I have it ready – I’ll be sure to share it with the IT Babble community.

Consistency

Finally, once you have data and feedback it is time to layout guidelines. Talk with administrators to work on what is realistic and sustainable but once those are set share those guidelines with everyone. Make the community accountable to making sure that teachers post to the portal and that students and parents are checking the portal. This shared responsibility takes a lot of pressure off of everyone’s shoulders and shares the load across the teachers, parents and students.

About Patrick Cauley

I teach middle school technology and love to play around with tech and teach students and colleagues alike. You can read my blog at www.itbabble.com
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