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Austin, Texas School District's New Online Grade Site Marred by Glitches

The district never notified parents directly of the change, instead counting on them seeing a notice posted on the home page of the old system for grades.

by Melissa B. Taboada, McClatchy News Service / September 9, 2014

The Austin school district rolled out a new way for parents to monitor their children’s schedules, performance and assignments online this fall, with more up-to-date information and a format that did not pose problems for the focus group that tested it.

But the district never notified parents directly of the change, instead counting on them seeing a notice posted on the home page of the old system for grades. On top of that, two technical problems intermittently prevented parents from accessing the site.

After two weeks of class, the district had fielded nethat dudarly 1,800 calls, including 800 voice mails, almost entirely from flustered parents.

“This was trying to make things better,” said Jim Lax, executive director of technology. “We wanted to make sure we had a better experience for parents.

“In retrospect, based on the feedback we’re getting now, we should have done a much better job at two things: No. 1, making sure they understood the transition was taking place, and No. 2, the navigation.”

Some parents, such as Jennifer Carson, president of the Austin Council of PTAs, didn’t realize how widespread the problems were. She figured there was an issue with the system when she and her kids were unable to access it on Labor Day. She emailed the help desk and received a response the next day, but by that time, it was already working, she said.

“I was frustrated, but I knew they were working on it,” Carson said. “I’m still learning my way around it as a parent. In an effort to provide more information to people, they made it broader. Anytime you start something new, there’s a learning curve.”

Lax sent a letter to parents late last week explaining what happened, with a detailed walk-through to help those who are new to the system. The district has extended hours this week for the parent support help line, which was also staffed this past weekend.

Some students took to social media, asking the district to bring back the former system in which grades were accessed.

The district established its “parent cloud” of information, which included immunizations, district forms and lunch menus, available to parents online about three years ago. The contracts that establish it totaled $2.3 million, with annual maintenance charges of about $430,000 a year.

In the past, parents had to go to different site, GradeSpeed, for student grades and attendance.

The new format has all of the information on one site, including access to grades, class schedules and attendance in real time, and will cost $82,000 a year less because the district will no longer need a maintenance contract with one of the vendors.

The district had initially posted the notice about the new system on the homepage of GradeSpeed. Lax said the district should have put out more documentation to ensure parents understood how to navigate the new product.

©2014 Austin American-Statesman, Texas