School districts create mobile apps to reach on-the-go parents

Washington area school districts are creating mobile apps to make it easier for busy, cellphone-addicted parents to check school lunch menus, e-mail a teacher or check on their daughter’s latest math score.

Arlington and Fairfax county schools were the latest to add their logos to the iTunes app store this fall. The Prince George’s County school system is designing a second version of its app, and Loudoun County schools and Alexandria schools unveiled mobile apps or mobile-friendly Web sites last year.

“This has really become the next generation of parents’ way of communicating,” said Linda Erdos, spokeswoman for Arlington’s public schools. “We want to make sure we are reaching them through all possible channels.”

Schools’ lines of communication have multiplied over the years, from backpack fliers and home visits to robo-calls and Web sites, group e-mails and text messages. Then they added Facebook and Twitter accounts. Now, mobile apps are being designed to streamline some of the chatter and put it at arm’s reach for a generation of parents accustomed to having smartphones at the ready.

A National School Public Relations Association survey of parents found that they place a premium on convenience when it comes to getting information from schools.

“They don’t want to have to go look for it,” said Rich Bagin, executive director of the Rockville-based association.

School districts’ mobile apps often include news, calendars, lunch menus, bus-stop schedules, hyperlinks to teachers’ and principals’ e-mails, and portals where parents can replenish a cafeteria account and check their child’s attendance records and grades.

Some apps can be customized so users aren’t slowed down by passwords; can receive alerts if a child misses an assignment or does not show up for school; and can get the latest news about school closings and school safety.

With the number of smartphone owners growing rapidly in recent years, school officials see the widespread embrace of mobile technology as a promising way to bridge the digital divide.

According to a report this year by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, more than half — 56 percent — of U.S. adults have smartphones. Ownership rates are even higher for African American and Hispanic adults: 64 percent and 60 percent, respectively. Young, low-income and minority smartphone users are more likely to say that their smartphone is their only source of reliable Internet access, research has found.

In a January survey of Fairfax families, 93 percent said they had Internet access at home. Mobile information could help reach the rest, said Maribeth Luftglass, the district’s chief information officer.

The school district’s decision to move to mobile was driven mostly by demand, she said. By summer, 25 percent of those on the county schools’ Web site were already accessing it with their cellphones, even if it meant scrolling tediously through sites not formatted for the small screen.

With the support of new superintendent Karen Garza, Fairfax schools spent $90,000 to develop the new app and begin re-formatting many of the district’s 12,000 Web pages so they are easier to read. About 5,000 people have downloaded the app since its launch in early October.

Montgomery County officials considered developing an app but instead redesigned their Web site last spring to make it more easily accessible from any device.

The Prince George’s school system recently unveiled a mobile app just for student information, including a grade book, and graduation requirements.

“I think you would be hard pressed to find a school district around the country that isn’t thinking about this,” said Douglas A. Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

But, Levin said, districts are in various stages of development and doing it with “different degrees of quality.”

A big challenge, he said, is culling the most essential information for busy parents so they don’t have to search through three pages of icons. Links to biographies, strategic plans and long-winded reports can be cumbersome.

Parents want to find the most relevant information about their children and their schools quickly and easily.

“I want it to be just the information I want to see,” Levin said.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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