Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

Bend-La Pine Schools has launched a new student information system that acts as a gateway to academic information and allows parents to track their student’s performance.

The new system, Synergy, was selected by a consortium of school districts in February 2012 after it was announced that a system widely used in Oregon, eSIS, would be discontinued. Synergy acts as an information hub for everyone involved in the education process, providing a platform for grading and attendance, while also serving as a channel for teacher-parent and teacher-student communication. Some districts, including Redmond, already had the system in place last year.

“It’s true that our old system had many of the same features as Synergy,” said Shay Mikalson, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instructional technology. “But the strength of this system is the ease with which parents can access information. Also, parents will now have only one login for all of their students no matter what school they are at, which should make things easier.”

Parents will be able to access the system through ParentVUE, which is available online and as a free app. Students will have the same access options through StudentVUE. When parents and students access the system, not only will they be able to view attendance records and report cards, but also a calendar on which teachers can post due dates and assignment materials.

“When a teacher enters an assignment in the gradebook, you can attach a resource such as a PDF of a worksheet or a link to a video,” said Nole Kennedy, a High Desert Middle School math teacher and synergy site facilitator. “When a parent or student is looking at the calendar or gradebook, they will see it there. If a student was absent or sick, a parent can click on it and print it out, and the student now has access to it without coming to school.”

As with the old system, Synergy will feature an up-to-date gradebook for middle and high school students. Elementary teachers, who were not previously required to use an electronic gradebook, will have this year to become accustomed to electronic grading.

The district hopes to have elementary gradebooks available online to parents in the following year, according to Mikalson,

Many of Synergy’s features, including the gradebook, can be set to send notifications to parents depending on a student’s performance.

“A parent could be notified if their student didn’t show up for a class, but there can also be grade notifications,” Mikalson said. “Parents could set this up to notify them if their grade drops from a certain percentage, it could be there in an email notification or delivered right to their phone through the ParentVUE app.”

Asked whether he thought Synergy may facilitate “helicopter parent” behavior, Mikalson stressed the importance of teacher-parent communication.

“If our mission is to educate all kids, we can’t do that alone,” he said. “It’s partnering with parents, it’s parenting with community, so anything we can do to leverage that partnership is a benefit. Getting information to our parents is key to what we’re trying to do, so giving them up-to-date and timely information on student progress is very important.”

Nonetheless, Mikalson stressed that while Synergy may increase electronic communication, it will not replace traditional channels the district uses to communicate with parents.

“This doesn’t take away from the fact that we have report card times, progress reports, those hard copy reports are still going home,” he said. “Open houses and face-to-face conferences will continue. This is just an extension.”

The district offers computer access to parents who may not have Internet or a computer in their school facilities. Additionally, Mikalson said the ParentVUE app will aid parents with smartphones but no other Internet access.

For teachers, so far the change has been welcome, Kennedy said.

“It’s been going great so far; change is hard for anybody, so there’s always a challenge with moving to a new system, but I know my colleagues are excited about the new system,” he said. “I showed them tools they may be interested in, which was the carrot to show them that this is cool and a good tool they can use.”

Teachers have been offered training, and each building has a site facilitator.

“So far we have just been using it for attendance; there are no grades in the first few days, and I’ve received no frantic phone calls from teachers, which is good,” Kennedy said.

One of the “carrots” Kennedy showed his colleagues is a feature that populates student calendars with information as soon as assignments are entered in the electronic gradebook. Another is an icon teachers can click to learn any pertinent health information about a student, such as whether he or she has asthma. He has also pointed to the advantage of having student pictures present when taking attendance.

“On the attendance side, the really neat thing is I have the ability to see all my students’ class pictures, which will be nice if you have a guest teacher, as you can print off a class list that matches the seating chart, so students can’t try and pull a fast one,” he said. “It absolutely makes learning names easier. I have about 150 this year, and learning names is always a challenge. What’s interesting is that the pictures are from last year, and it’s wild to see how much they change between seventh and eighth grade.”

Parents will receive an activation key and guide that will allow them to access the system later in the month. Additionally, guides and trouble shooting advice will be available online. ParentVUE is set to go live Sept. 16.