One of the first things I did when I became the Technology Coordinator of the building was to establish a school web site which would improve communication between the school and parents. It has always been my belief that when the school communicates effectively with the parents, students have a better support structure for the academics. The owner of Execu.net had a child in TJ at the time. He offered us free web hosting as a service to the school. I immediately made the arrangements to create tjmiddle.org to server our school. The web site was the first fully functional Internet portal for any of the Frederick County schools and still is today. Each year, I spend a fair amount of time updating and upgrading the site to continue the communication between the school and parents.
I created the site using the PostNuke CMS which is a free content management system (CMS) which uses Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP (LAMP) technology. A CMS can cost up to $25,000 or more to set up and additional money per year to continue using it. PostNuke was free to set up and did not require additional money to continue using it. Using PostNuke, teachers would all be able to post news and add events to a calendar which parents could view. Later on, I wrote my first PHP module for PostNuke, the Homework Online Portal. This allowed teachers to post homework for parents to check. The next year, I found a great free grade book program called Basmati, which works with the Easy Grade Pro electronic grade book software. Teachers found the Easy Grade Pro grade book, well, easy to use. It took only a few simple steps to export a text file of the current grades to the tjmiddle.org web site which allowed parents to check their students' grades. At the time, the county was recommending a program called Micrograde which was also popular with teachers. However, in order to get the grades online, the teachers had to pay about $25 per year to post grades or $995 per year for the school. Of course, TJ Middle didn't have $995 to spend on a grade book service. So I saved the school approximately $3000 for the three years we used Basmati. Eventually, FCPS purchased the Pinnacle grade book system for the county and we all switched to that.
The next year, I added a mailing list program, called PHPList, that would send HTML formatted emails to our parents. To me, this was a critical improvement since about 80% of parents in a survey responded they have some access to email either at home or work. That would me we could send instant communications about what was happening at school. We were the first school in the county to have such a program. Managing an email list is challenging and has logistical issues such as collecting emails from parents and pruning emails that go bad. For several years we did a pretty good job since the software has a method of "graduating" emails from one list to another. So we entered all parents into a list according to the grade level of their child. As the child advanced to the next grade, we moved the email to the appropriate grade list. Eventually, when the child leaves the school, the email is moved to a "friends" list and then pruned. Parents also have the ability to remove themselves from the list at any time. We are still using this software today.
A year after we started using our email software, FCPS began using Find Out First to email FCPS news to parents. This service is also offered to school for a few of $1500 per year. Again, our list is free and saves us that money.
The last piece of software I added to the web site was the Moodle Learning Management System (LMS). Even though I didn't expect teachers to put their classes online, I knew that Moodle was so user-friendly and teacher-centered, that it could be used to put resources such as worksheets, handouts, assignment criteria, syllabus and grading policy, as well as test dates and project dates. So far, several teachers keep their class sites updated, but most don't take advantage of it. Since it is not required to do more than post the syllabus, most teachers do what is required and no more. One of my goals of the future is to encourage teachers to do more with their class site. I will use my class site as an example.
This year was the first year the administration took advantage of the Moodle LMS courseware. We have put our staff development online for teachers to use. The goal is to create an Electronic Learning Community (ELC) for teachers which will act as a repository of knowledge for future teachers. It can be especially helpful for new teachers who are just beginning to add to their repertoire of teaching skills and pedagogy.
Overall, the web site has been very successful. It is the most visible achievement I have made as an instructional leader. Parents are frequently commenting on how useful it is and how when their child moves on to the high school that the miss the communications they got with our school. They will often contact me to let me know when I haven't updated the site in a timely manner, or ask questions about where to find information. I have included a list of features of the web site below. It typically takes a few hours per month to keep it updated. Every now and then I have to upgrade the site which can take several hours. There is one coming up for the email program so that we can start sending out the PTSA newsletter again.
TJ MIDDLE WEB SITE FEATURES
- School News
- School Calendar
- School Documents
- PTSA Newsletter Email
- PTSA Newsletter Downloads
- Class Information
- Class Calendars
- Class Documents
- Online Testing
- Data Disaggregation
- Student Book Reviews
- Student Online Resources