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Will parent-teacher conferences soon become a thing of the past?

In an effort to squeeze in more instruction time, one school district has replaced student-teacher conferences with online reports. It says the reports give more information than a conference ever could -- but is it the right information?

The change was rolled out this year in Adams County School District 14, just north of Denver. The district serves 7,500 students, half of whom are English-language learners. Around 85 percent qualify for subsidized lunches, so the district is largely made up of lower-income families. It has been struggling academically and was pressured to make changes under a state-ordered plan for improvement.

One of those changes was the introduction of a relatively common parent portal program called Infinite Campus. It provides information about assignments, attendance and grades and can be accessed via computer or smartphone. What's unusual is the decision to replace parent-teacher conferences with information from Infinite Campus. Other districts that use Infinite Campus still schedule conferences.

Parents and teachers are frustrated. The district apparently failed to provide advance notice of the switch, and use of the program seems to be low. The district could only confirm that 1,267 parents had signed up for Infinite Campus, although it's possible that there are others who aren't trackable.

"I don't understand it," one parent said of Infinite Campus. "There's a language barrier, so for me it's more comfortable to talk in person."

Limited research has shown that parent portal users tend to be more affluent and educated than average. Poorer families may lack familiarity with the technology or have limited internet access.

Moreover, it seems that both parents and teachers value in-person conferences for more than simple information sharing.

One elementary teacher said that 98 percent of families in her classroom attended conferences last year. Conferences can be crucial when it comes to learning and behavior issues, she says.

For example, last year she noticed that a student was hurting herself and having other issues. Working with her parents, the teacher was able to help. Now, the student is back on track.

Some parents say there is no comparison between what you get from a conference and what is available through Infinite Campus.

"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 one parent. "The portal might tell me he failed an assignment, but what does that tell me?"

"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," said another.

District argues that conferences could be done on teacher's own time, during other meetings

A spokesperson for the district said that parents who feel they need face time with a teacher can still reach out and ask for a meeting. The elementary school teacher mentioned above confirms that a number of parents have asked to meet before or after school.

One problem is that there is sometimes a language barrier. During official conferences, translators could be provided. In ad hoc meetings, teachers sometimes have to scramble to find a phone-based solution.

Another issue is that these one-off meetings are scheduled outside school hours when teachers aren't on the clock.

The district also encourages teachers to build parent engagement during the home visits that Adams 14 teachers perform several times a year. However, teachers aren't supposed to discuss school behavior or academics at those meetings, so they can't replace a conference.

System could create other problems, inequities

Adams 14 is under a federal court order to improve its service to non-native English speakers. Nevertheless, it rolled out Infinite Campus in English only this year. The district says the system will allow reports in other languages over time.

One Johns Hopkins education professor was troubled by the decision to replace conferences with Infinite Campus reports. "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," he said.

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