Gone are the days of coming home from school and telling Mom and Dad there was no homework. With about 80 per cent of teachers at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School using school Web sites to post assignments and a host of other information, parents know what's due tomorrow - and down the road.
"It is parental involvement that makes this school great," principal Margaret (Peg) Regan told parents in the Performing Arts Center on Back to School Night on Thursday. With the increasing use of class Web sites and the move from phone to e-mail as the status quo for communication, it's easier than ever for parents to be involved.
"Probably the best way to stay in touch with teachers is through e-mail," Mrs. Regan told parents, encouraging them to give teachers feedback and tell them their expectations for their child. "You don't want to wait until report cards," she added. Instead of returning phone calls at the end of the day, teachers can reply to e-mail from their classrooms during the day.
Mrs. Regan also invited parents to twice-monthly parent coffees at the school. Parents that can't make it don't completely miss out - the staff can e-mail minutes of the meetings.
Then, with best wishes for not getting lost in the 140,000 square-foot building, Mrs. Regan sent parents off to attend all of their child's classes in 10 minute-periods - with just three minutes' traveling time between each.
"The funny thing is, they all get lost," Mrs. Regan said days prior to the event. "The kids think it's hysterical."
Although the eight classes - from period A though H - were sample-sized, parents got a healthy taste of their kids' school lives, from working on free-writing and sharing in Amy Wallace's A-period English class, to taking a quiz matching quotes to classic texts in Cynthia Cowan's F-period English class. Parents also got a feel for navigating the hallways and the occasional long haul from one end of the building to another.
"Can you imagine 800 of them passing in the halls?" one parent commented in transit in the English wing. "This is a lot of work going back and forth and finding these classes," said another parent after trekking to a science classroom.
In Eric Alexander's B-period Global Studies class for freshmen, the teacher guided parents through the class Web site, projected onto a pull-down white screen from his desk computer. A syllabus, class notes, homework, behavior and performance guidelines and grading methods were just some of the features. Mr. Alexander also does grading online sometimes, meaning the student would not receive a paper grade.
"Your kids can't lie and tell you they don't have homework because you can go online and see," Mr. Alexander told the parents. The school song is the first item featured on his Web page. "If they're really good, I'll sing it to them," he said. This is not an unlikely scenario. "They're so well behaved I'm getting suspicious," he joked. The only problem is that the students are too giddy sometimes. "If that's my biggest problem all year long, I'm going to have a good year," he added.
Class Web sites first emerged at the regional high school five years ago, using a pilot group of teachers. Over the past four years, teachers were asked during professional development days to create Web sites, which can be found on the faculty pages of mvrhs.org. Although not every teacher uses one, it has become the norm.
"What it's really helpful for is parent-teacher communication," Mrs. Regan said in an interview yesterday. "It's just become a very acceptable and reliable way to communicate home, and it also offers kids who are sick the opportunity to stay up to date with the assignments."
Students in school are using the Web sites frequently too. "I would say almost all the students are using it," Mrs. Regan said. "Not only have [teachers] put the assignment up, but they've put up background information."
One of the most comprehensive Web sites belongs to Laurie Halt, who teaches U.S. History, Advanced Placement U.S. History and American Government and Politics. In addition to in-depth notes and study guides, Mrs. Halt has audio versions of every textbook chapter on her Web site, which can be downloaded onto an iPod or other Mp3 player.
Back on Thursday, new teacher Justine Shemeth's Web site was not up and running in time for Back to School Night, but she encouraged the parents of her D-period Spanish students to keep the lines of communication open.
"My phone number's in the book," Miss Shemeth said. "Give me a call." Since this is her first full-time teaching job, Miss Shemeth shared her resume as well as class information in a Power Point presentation. The background of each slide was a photo from her recent trip to the Galapagos.
"That's what got me into Spanish in the first place," she said. "This idea that you can travel anywhere." Miss Shemeth will also run the Cultura Club and coach girls' junior varsity basketball. "It's my first year back to the Island, and it looks like I'm here to stay," she said.
In Janice Frame's G-period drawing and painting class, parents gathered on stools around heavy wooden tables, surrounded by student artwork and still-life arrangements of white drapery. For freshmen, the class is a departure from the fun and freedom of elementary school art classes.
"This experience is very different, and I tell them that in the beginning," Mrs. Frame said. "It is academic in a way." The students spend six weeks drawing and six weeks painting in a disciplined program to learn the fundamentals of those skills. "Once you learn how to see, it's nothing but shapes and shades," Mrs. Frame told parents, and then she delved into shelves and drawers for examples of successful work by their children.
Mrs. Frame took a different approach to keeping in touch with parents.
"Any time you want to come in, come in," she said, motioning around the classroom with a smile. "This is a hang-out space!"