When the school calendar closes in on midterms or the end of a semester, Scott and Carey Oswald log in to the Papillion-La Vista schools' parent portal to check grades for their two oldest children.
Between times, they get notices on their smartphones from the district's new mobile app when a teacher updates grades or an alert if either of the Papillion-La Vista South students' grades drop to a C.
“It definitely is helpful to get it instantly,” Scott Oswald said. “If you're missing an assignment or starting off on the wrong foot with a quiz ... sometimes conferences are too late to make a change in a grade.”
School districts large and small a decade ago began opening up their online student information systems — the most common locally are PowerSchool and Infinite Campus. Now, all districts in the metro area allow such access.
The systems allow parents and students to check grades and, to varying degrees, assignments, attendance and even lunch money accounts.
Mobile apps have further streamlined access. Some districts, such as Papillion-La Vista and Omaha, have created their own all-in-one apps.
Many parents, including the Oswalds, love the systems, saying the portals allow them to keep tabs on grades, prompt their students about missing assignments and hold them accountable for remedying any problems.
Older students use them, too, often at teachers' urgings, to check grades and track assignments. In some districts, high school students log in far more frequently than do parents.
School districts say the systems, which typically attach teachers' email addresses, help engage parents and improve communication between school and home.
“It's been, 'Hurry up and get this for us,' '' said Amanda Oliver, a spokeswoman for the Bellevue Public Schools.
But for some, the portals — and their assignment-by-assignment grade tallies — can become a source of family tension. Several parents said they'd had words with a child or revoked privileges after seeing a zero on the portal, only to learn that the assignment hadn't been graded yet.
Experts say a family's relationship with a portal will vary according to parents' expectations and their children's personalities and ages.
Grades typically aren't posted for elementary school students because there are fewer to post. The Elkhorn district, in fact, doesn't provide access to parents until fourth grade.
While more frequent checking may be appropriate for middle school students, experts said, high school students typically should be left to manage more on their own.
Kristen Karl, the mom of twin seventh-grade sons at Bellevue's Lewis & Clark Middle School, said she initially thought being able to check the portal every day was nice.
But then she saw a zero on an assignment, which translated to an F in the grade book. When she asked why, her son said he'd already gotten an extension on the assignment and was working it out. Another time, the assignment had wound up in the wrong turn-in basket.
So she took her husband's advice and began checking only once a week. She knows it's the boys' first year in middle school. She can still go into conferences knowing what to expect but also teach her boys, who get A's and B's, to figure out how to address problems on their own.
“I put it back on them, because I'm not going to do it for them,” she said.
Shauna Stanzel, the mom of a freshman at Westside High School, said the systems make it easier to get in contact with teachers. When her daughter, Kati, broke her ankle playing softball this year and was out of school for a week, she used it to figure out how many classes she'd missed, to try to work doctor's appointments around classes and to let teachers know when an absence was unavoidable.
But she said she can't imagine checking every day. Her daughter checks more often.
“I check it regularly to keep track of my grades, and if I took a test,” Kati Stanzel said. “It's actually pretty convenient. I like it.”
Kati has, however, heard other students complain about their parents checking, particularly attendance.
The quest for parents is to find a balance between being supportive and helping students develop autonomy, said Nancy Bond, supervisor of school counseling for the Omaha Public Schools.
“Am I helping develop the confidence in their ability to do something?” she said. “If a parent makes the call instead of insisting a child do it, you are taking away their ability to do it.”
Parents can think of that balance like that of a boss who checks on their progress at work. “That doesn't necessarily take away from your feeling of competence, but it does increase your level of accountability,” she said.
That may lead to some missteps along the way, said Ashley Harlow, a psychologist and nationally certified school psychologist with Children's Hospital & Medical Center.
Failing a couple of assignments “can be a really corrective experience,” he said. If parents are constantly checking in, kids may not get the opportunity to fail. The long-term consequence could be that they go to college, start jobs and still not know how to deal with failure.
Alan Bone, PowerSchool administrator for the Westside district, said he encountered a few “unhealthy” levels of checking during his years as an English teacher.
Bone, the father of four sons, agreed that the sweet spot for parents trying to foster independence probably is somewhere in the middle. But with the cost of college what it is today, he said, consequences can affect the checkbook.
“It's a real conundrum for parents,” he said.
Barbara Starkie, principal of Apponequet Regional High School in Lakeville, Mass., during a previous job at a middle school, conducted one of relatively few studies of parent portals and their impact on parent involvement. The results suggested that portals made parents feel more engaged and therefore had the potential to keep them involved as their children got older.
But Starkie said simply providing numeric data tends to lead to conversations about finishing tasks but not about academic performance. The systems will reach full potential, she said, when they come with resources that help a parent work with a child — say, a vocabulary study guide for a student who is struggling with “The Great Gatsby.”
Parents also may need training in using the systems and in interpreting the data. A 75 percent in biology may not look good to a parent, she said, but it does mean that the student understood 75 percent of the material.
Some districts do provide instructions, training or both for parents new to their systems. The Elkhorn district sends a letter to new parents and those with students entering fourth grade that includes an explanation that grades are typically updated every two weeks but some grading may take longer.
The Omaha district held training sessions at schools when it opened Infinite Campus and worked with service agencies to provide others. It also sends out instructional letters and has a video on its website.
“In the end, the provision of (information) to parents is really important, and it opens a dialogue,” Starkie said. “The next step is making the dialogue really meaningful and powerful.”