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Orange County Plans to Link Schools, Homes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The days when kids could hide a bad report card under the pillow or conveniently forget how much homework they have may soon be over, (no) thanks to the Internet.

A centralized computer system now under design would link homes to all Orange County public schools, allowing parents to electronically check out their children’s report cards, peek at graded homework and review assignments.

“The missing link in education today is the valuable connection between the parent, student and teachers,” said Bill Habermehl, assistant superintendent of the Orange County Department of Education, which would run the Internet project.

Bi-Tech Software Corps, a Chico-based company that provides the department with various administrative software, has a contract to design an Internet program that will place the county’s 28 school districts on the cutting edge of parent-school communications in Southern California.

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Although some districts already have designed their own home pages, Habermehl said, the countywide system would provide more sophisticated online opportunities.

By punching in a student’s identification number and a password, parents could view everything from student projects to test scores, from teacher comments to attendance records.

There go the days of cutting school undetected. There go a lot of things.

“If Mom asks you if you have any homework and you say no,” Habermehl said, “she can just click onto the home page and find out if you’re telling the truth.”

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That puts an end to Mom and Dad’s anxiety about exactly what is going on in school and what kind of report card to expect. On the other hand, the system raises anxieties in some people’s minds about privacy and security.

Officials at Kent School District in Washington state have been running a similar system for two years, and resistance has come from both parents and educators. Confidentiality has been a top concern.

Mike Davidson of Meridian Junior High School in Kent, Wash., said he is reluctant to put academic records online. Parents now can pull up a student’s essays and projects on the Internet, but grades are not available. Kent officials intend to post grades in the future, a step Davidson disagrees with.

Even though passwords limit access to Internet information, he said, computer hackers have cracked security systems in the past.

“If they can break into the Pentagon, they can break into Meridian Junior High,” Davidson said, referring to a December incident in which the Air Force’s World Wide Web page was altered.

The student grades will be available only on the Meridian campus in order to prevent hacking. The school will open a parent computer room in which students’ schoolwork can be electronically reviewed throughout the day, also a help to families that lack a home computer.

Bi-Tech representatives said Orange County’s system would store student records in a county database connected to the Internet. That structure, they said, protects the information from tampering.

“To penetrate that barrier,” Bi-Tech software developer Matthew Lennig said, “that person would need to log in and know the encrypted passwords or decode them, which is almost impossible to do.”

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Separate from the technical concerns, child advocacy groups are skeptical of displaying students’ work online.

Shelley Pasnik with the Center for Media Education, a Washington, D.C., children’s rights think tank that monitors telecommunications policies, said older students should have some personal privacy, even from the watchful eyes of their parents.

“I can see more of a need on the elementary level, where children have lower cognitive skills and need close supervision,” Pasnik said. “But with high school students, they have a greater level of maturity and are reaching an age when they are starting to understand themselves and need their own space.”

But Orange County administrator Habermehl said parents have the right to see their children’s schoolwork and interact with the teachers. The major deterrent for parents, however, especially those who work, is the lack of time to visit the schools.

"[The Internet] is a way of breaking down classroom walls,” he said.

Despite the mixed feelings about putting a student’s academic file on the Net, a growing number of schools are showing interest in such systems.

For instance, Lightspan Partnership, a San Diego software company, came out with such a system last May, and the demand for the software has been so high that orders are backlogged.

“The Internet is the new communication medium,” said Josh Graves, Lightspan’s director of Internet products. “This promotes a two-way communication system between families and schools.”

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Habermehl agreed, describing Orange County’s Internet Project as an “extension of the classroom.”

The system is about more than parents checking up on their kids. Teachers will be able to swap lesson plans. Students could communicate with others nearby or in other countries. School field trips and classroom presentations also could be digitally broadcast online. And hotlines could be established to help students with their homework.

Once the Internet system is in place, Kent, Wash., officials advise plenty of training for teachers.

“If teachers are not fully trained on how to use the software, our high-tech equipment goes to waste,” Davidson said, adding that his teachers attended 65 technology training sessions last year. “It would be like throwing money down the toilet.”

And that’s a lot of money. The Kent School District was able to go online in 1994 after a $6.8-million school bond was passed to pay for the wiring and local network. The district also spends about $30,000 annually on Internet costs.

Orange County officials could not estimate how much it will cost to install the systemwide Internet project. Currently, each of the county’s 28 districts is wiring its campuses so that a countywide system can be set up.

One option the county is investigating is to offer Internet access through TV cable lines, which may allow broader public access because more families own a television than a computer, Habermehl said.

School superintendents will meet with local cable companies in following weeks to review the proposals, Habermehl said. Meanwhile, the county is raising funds for the program and building business partnerships.

The county’s home page will be accessible starting Friday with general information, e-mail addresses for administrators and Web sites for local school districts and the state Department of Education. More interactive tools will be available in coming months, officials said.


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