Pittsburgh schools make student data accessible from smartphones

Apps allow parents to monitor grades, lunch money, more

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Imagine being able to access your child's grades, add money to a school lunch account or get directions to an away high school basketball game with a touch of your smartphone.

Those capabilities are available or on the horizon in a handful of local school districts where cell phone apps are being created.

The North Hills School District launched an app in January and so far it has been downloaded by 1,425 users. Recently, the Carlynton and Duquesne City school districts have created apps, which are still in the process of being constructed. Mt. Lebanon will launch one next month, and in Quaker Valley, district officials are brainstorming about what functions they'd like to offer the community in an app.

The school district apps, a term short for application, can be used on smartphones, which are phones with Internet connections, and are available for iPhones, iPads and Android devices.

North Hills administrators heard about the idea of a smartphone app about a year ago and decided it fit with the district's goal of using technology. In addition, school officials believed making information accessible on a smartphone was the way to reach the largest audience.

"There are some people who might not have Internet in their homes, but it's really hard to find someone who doesn't have a smartphone. Statistics show lots of people access the Internet only from a phone or tablet," said Amanda Hartle, North Hills communications coordinator.

Duquesne administrators also saw the value in providing information on a cell phone since so many families in the district use them as their main connection to the Internet, said Stan Whiteman, assistant to the superintendent.

In Carlynton, superintendent Gary Peiffer saw an app as a vehicle to communicate quickly to parents in the event of a school closure, snow delay or emergency, spokeswoman Michale Herrmann said.

The apps allow administrators to send "push notifications" to those who use the app about matters that require immediate attention such as cancellations or emergencies. They show up as alerts similar to text messages.

The apps can range from basic to sophisticated, depending on how much money districts are willing to spend and what functions they want to provide.

A basic app could include district news releases, staff listings with contact information, school lunch menus and a link to the district's website. But more advanced apps, such as the one used by North Hills, provide links to student information portals that include grades and attendance records and to lunch accounts, sports and activities schedules with mapping functions to provide directions to events.

They also allow users to merge district calendars with personal cell phone calendars so that student events show up on parents' schedules, and some provide links to the district's library and media collections.

The Duquesne app allows students to connect with two tutorial programs used by the district -- Study Island and Reading Eggs. It also includes a tip line through which students, parents or community members can provide information, anonymously if preferred, about such issues as bullying, fighting, drugs, vandalism or other threats to school safety, and it provides a link to a system that holds individual teacher Web pages with information about assignments and class discussions.

The Carlynton app will provide video of past school board meetings.

Even more sophisticated apps allow parents to set alerts for when their children's grades fall below a certain level or when their attendance falters. Parents can create a profile for each of their children that provides individual grade and activity information.

"To me, it's all about the connections to what is the vital information for parents," said Tina Vojtko, communications manager for the Quaker Valley School District. "And it's really about managing their own child or children at school. What's most important is what's most personal and that's information about their child and school and integrating with their calendar."

Some of the apps have a function that translates information into more than five dozen languages.

Adam Bushman, marketing manager for ParentLink, a Provo, Utah, firm that created the Carlynton and Duquesne apps, said the cost of apps varies based on the size of a school district and the capabilities included. In general, he said apps cost about 50 cents per student plus implementation costs of about several thousand dollars. But they are free to download.

Carlyton spent $3,500 for the set-up and branding of its app. Its annual message fee is $2,914.

North Hills, which used the firm SchoolInfoApp to create its app, spent $2,000 to set it up and has a $2,000 annual maintenance fee.

Duquesne's set-up cost was $1,000 with an annual maintenance fee of $1,175.

Mr. Bushman said his firm has created apps for 150 school districts across the country. The largest district to use a ParentLink app is the Clark County School District in Nevada, which includes Las Vegas and encompasses 300,000 students.

"At that district, we have thousands and thousands of parents that get grades on their phones and they do it on a daily basis," Mr. Bushman said.

And, he said, it's not only parents who use the grade check function. Students frequently use the app to check their scores after they take tests.

He said parents and students prefer smartphone apps over district websites because they are quicker to use and allow them to select only the information that is relevant to their family rather than all of the information posted on a website.

"They can design it to see only the information they want and the app puts it all in one place," Mr. Bushman said.

Mr. Bushman said a Pew Research Center study confirms what school officials believe about smartphone use among its families. The study, done in July and August 2011, found that more people now access the internet on smartphones than on traditional computers, even in low-income communities.

According to the study, "among smartphone owners, young adults, minorities, those with no college experience, and those with lower household income levels are more likely than other groups to say that their phone is their main source of Internet access."

As with school websites and newsletters, some districts are using their apps as advertising vehicles selling space on the screens. The North Hills app debuted with an insurance agent advertising on the bottom of some screens.

District officials said they will likely add functions to their apps in the future as they identify capabilities that parents and students would like to have.

"This is just in the beginning phases," Mr. Whiteman said of Duquesne's app. "I see this improving and using it for a lot of different things."

education - mobilehome - interact

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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