Arlington students at H-B Woodlawn protest plans for online parental monitoring

Early next year, parents in Arlington County will join a growing number of their peers nationwide who log on to Web sites to track whether their children turned in that history term paper, passed that algebra test or missed an important English class.

But at the county’s H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program, nicknamed “Hippie High” in part for its culture of student empowerment, an outcry has arisen over the technological advance known as the Parent Portal. Many students and some teachers worry that over-informed parents will stymie the independence of college-bound teens.

School days 2011-12

Get news, advice and more.

Students at Woodlawn create their courses and get hours of unsupervised time each week. They call teachers by their first names. In the school’s 40-year history, there have been no bells. Its motto, in Latin, is verbum sap sat: A word to the wise is sufficient.

Woodlawn, with about 600 students in grades 6 through 12, takes seriously its quest to teach the value of personal responsibility. Sometimes, that means circumscribing parental influence.

But another movement, expanding in the Washington area and elsewhere, posits that parents with more insight into grades and test scores can help direct their children toward academic success. Arlington’s Parent Portal will update student grades, assignments and attendance records as often as several times a week, delivering a trove of information previously unavailable to parents until interim report cards. The timing of the portal’s launch next year is under discussion.

In Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince William and Prince George’s counties, educators point to early successes of similar programs, with names such as Parent View, ParentConnect, Family Portal, Edline and PowerSchool. Parents are able to be more vigilant about their children’s progress rather than waiting for report cards or teacher conferences, officials say, when it might be too late to correct bad habits.

But Woodlawn students are unconvinced. They have protested Parent Portal at student-run town meetings. They’ve written editorials in the student newspaper. There’s been talk of Occupying Arlington. They’ve articulated the inherent contradiction in a school that preaches personal accountability but gives parents uninhibited access to their grades and test scores.

“The idea of giving access to the portal is averse to the whole idea the school was founded on,” senior Jojo Emerson said. “We’re worried that our individualized control will go to our parents.”

The technology might be new, but the nature of the debate is familiar. Are students being coddled? Do they need more support, or less, to prepare them for the real world?

Across the country, many students decry the added stress that comes with a parent’s ability to check on a child’s incremental progress. But dissent is rarely as coherent or well organized as it is at Woodlawn.

The school’s students and teachers argue that Woodlawn graduates are uniquely prepared for college. They’ve learned to manage their time and engage with their teachers without parental intermediaries. That stands to be lost if the new Web platform is misused, many say.

“My concern is that H-B Woodlawn will become just like the other Arlington high schools, and it’s important to emphasize how unique . . . we are,” said Elly Kluge, a social studies teacher.

Arlington school officials cite studies showing that parental involvement can have a positive effect on academic performance. They claim that programs such as Parent Portal engage families in a constructive manner.

“This is a way for parents to see how their child is progressing beyond parent-teacher conferences and report cards,” said Frank Bellavia, a county schools spokesman. “Students need independence, but they also need support.”

Woodlawn Principal Frank Haltiwanger is trying to mediate between the two camps. The Parent Portal is a reality of 21st-century education practices, he said, and it’s hardly worth resisting. What matters, he said, is how it’s implemented — ideally without undermining the ability of students to forge their own academic path and learn from mistakes.

“We understand that there could be tension. Parents can now get into a territory that was previously reserved for students,” Haltiwanger said. “But we have to trust our parents to do the right thing . . . to log on with their students instead of bypassing them.”

Educators accept that online access changes the nature of the parent-student dynamic. It imposes transparency on even the darkest corners of that relationship: a missed homework assignment or a skipped class, secrets once easily concealed. That could create tension, but it could also allow parents to intervene in an academic crisis.

“If a student’s grade suddenly drops from a B to a D, it gives us a chance to step in, to ask, ‘What happened here?’ ” said Rich Haske, chairman of Woodlawn’s parent advisory committee.

The online tracking system also imposes discipline on teachers. Their grade books suddenly open for weekly inspection, some input grades and attendance records more often than they would otherwise.

“We have parents who want to know exactly how their children did on a test immediately after they take it,” said Wanda Perkins, president of the Arlington Education Association, which represents teachers. “At a certain point, it becomes too much pressure on the teacher and the student.”

 
Read what others are saying