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.

apology

Criticism mounts for Adams 14 school board for asking police to escort critic out of meeting

File photo of the Adams 14 school board, including Connie Quintana, right, the board's current president. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Two organizations are demanding the Adams 14 school board apologize for removing a vocal critic from a public meeting, after he insisted on calling out school officials by name in criticism officials characterized as “not constructive.”

Jorge Garcia, the head of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, has been a frequent critic of the district and Superintendent Javier Abrego ever since the district stopped the expansion of biliteracy programming. At the last meeting, top district officials interrupted Garcia and ordered police to escort him out.

Tuesday the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado sent the school board a letter, signed by their attorney, asking for an apology to Garcia, “for violating his First Amendment rights,” and attacking the board’s unwritten policy against criticizing district officials and staff by name. It asked for a response by Oct. 1.

“The board’s silencing of Mr. Garcia represents viewpoint discrimination that the First Amendment forbids,” the ACLU’s letter states. “Mr. Garcia has every right to mention Superintendent Abrego by name when providing public criticism of a public official who is the highest-ranking executive officer of the Adams 14 School District.”

Tuesday afternoon, officials from the school district did not return a request for comment.

Earlier, the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, where Garcia is executive director, also issued a statement, asking for an apology from the school board. In its statement, the association wrote that Garcia offered to resign “in order to spare the organization any possible retaliatory litigation targeting him,” but the association’s board unanimously rejected the offer and instead supported Garcia’s attempts to speak to the board.

“CABE is the foremost advocate for educational equity for emergent bilinguals in the state​,” the association wrote. “Jorge’s initial actions at the Adams 14 board meeting were perfectly consistent with this role.”

The board has its next regular meeting Tuesday evening.

Read the full letters below:





out of order

Frequent critic of Adams 14 school district, and advocate for bilingual education, removed from public meeting

Jorge Garcia addressing the Adams 14 board just before he was escorted out. (Photo courtesy of Nicholas Martinez, founder of Transform Education Now.)

Adams 14 district leaders ordered police to kick out the head of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education from a school board meeting this week, as he stood at the podium midway through his comments criticizing district staff.

In removing Jorge Garcia, a frequent critical voice at district board meetings, officials cited a policy that bars “personal attacks” during public comment. The board’s attempts to regulate public participation in its meetings have prompted discussion among board members and others and raised questions about how the district engages with the community.

Garcia was the first speaker at the board’s public comment session Tuesday, as he has been for most meetings in the last year. He started by criticizing the district’s performance on state tests.

“Despite [Superintendent Javier] Abrego’s attempts to make it seem like this district is doing so much better this year than in years past, the truth is that the district is still not off the clock,” Garcia said, referring to the district being on a state watch list. “He promised that he would have the district out of turnaround in two years or he would resign. That was the first of many false promises to this community.”

“Turnaround” is a state label indicating the district needs to improve.

Connie Quintana, the board president, first interrupted Garcia’s comments to tell him he could not use people’s names — as frequently requested of speakers in the past year, despite the lack of a written policy stating that names can’t be used.

Garcia responded that he could use names, and continued reading his remarks prepared for the three-minute allotted time. A little later, Quintana interrupted again as he was criticizing a meeting Superintendent Abrego and his staff held with CU Boulder’s School of Education.

“This is not constructive,” Quintana said to Garcia ordering him to stop as the officer came to stand by Garcia. Garcia raised his voice, visibly upset. Superintendent Abrego said, “get him off,” and the officer then escorted out Garcia, who was still shouting.

A video below shows the exchange starting at about minute 23:10.

The district’s policy about public comments prohibits personal attacks but states that it welcomes constructive criticism if it is “motivated by a sincere desire to improve the quality of the educational program.”

“The school district also has confidence in its professional staff, and desires to support their actions in order that they be free from unnecessary, spiteful, or destructive criticism and complaint,” the policy states.

Adams 14 spokesman Alex Sanchez said the district permits speakers to express criticism.

Other speakers Tuesday, including the one directly after Garcia, also criticized the district, but were not called out of order.

Sanchez also said that Quintana didn’t really mean that Garcia shouldn’t use names, but that she was asking Garcia to stop making personal attacks.

“We don’t discriminate based on whether it’s negative or positive,” Sanchez said. “He violated policy. He was called out of order. The board president had the right to revoke that privilege.”

He later described a personal attack as comments naming people. “If he had said a person’s position or title, it would have been different.”

Quintana, the board president, did not respond to a request for comment about why she called Garcia out of order.

Garcia said he was not trying to attack anyone.

“I was giving them facts to ask the question, how will you be addressing the district’s image,” Garcia said. “You should know what your employee is doing and how he is representing the district. It is absolutely relevant.”

School board member Bill Hyde, who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, has questioned the board policy before. He once blogged that Abrego emailed board members “advising them to bar non-residents from speaking during the public comments,” citing the policy as justification. Garcia is one of several advocates for biliteracy education who do not live in the district and regularly speak at board meetings.

Hyde has also pointed out in meetings that board policy does not restrict the board or speakers from using people’s names.

Mark Silverstein, the legal director for the ACLU, would not comment specifically but said in general, school districts should not have too much room to interpret what is allowed or not.

“Any rule or regulation that restricts or controls when or what can be said in a public forum needs to be clear …. so that officials interpreting the policy do not have free reign as they enter into their evaluations.”

At a meeting in April, when the board had a staff member from the Colorado Association of School Boards give them a presentation on how to govern as a school board, Hyde asked about the policy.

Randy Black, a director of member relations for the association, told the board that controlling comments during a public forum is a challenge.

He urged the board instead to consider that people making personal attacks might signal that the public does not feel engaged.

“How do people feel involved or valued or listened to or heard?” Black asked the board.

District spokesman Sanchez also acknowledged that Tuesday’s incident signals a lack of community engagement.

“We recognize you eliminate a lot of this by having authentic community engagement outside the board room,” Sanchez said.

Ariel Smith and Nicholas Martinez, the leaders of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on parent advocacy, said the problem was on display just a day later at a meeting Wednesday when they heard from parents who said they felt “intimidated out of participation.”

The district only recently has had police present at board meetings.

“School districts must take safety and security seriously,” Sanchez said. “We provide security to protect both the public, our students and staff. This is normal and a best practice for school board meetings.”

Garcia called the tactic unnecessary and intimidating.

“It seems like they want to instill fear in the community and in a community with so many immigrants who have good reason to fear a police presence, it seems like they are the ones being targeted,” Garcia said.

Garcia had started addressing the board last year when the district stopped the rollout of a biliteracy program. He often criticizes the district and superintendent over policies affecting bilingual families and students.

The superintendent has responded to Garcia’s comments in the past, disputing much of his criticism.

Garcia was not cited. As he left the meeting he shouted that the board would be hearing from his attorney. Later he said he wants to give the board the opportunity to “right their wrong” but said that if they don’t, he may consider “other options.”