As the Philadelphia School District tries to move its technology into the 21st century, some parents and teachers are finding plenty to complain about regarding the new student information system called Infinite Campus.
Parents will be the last ones to be looped into the system, and some are frustrated that they can’t easily check their children’s records the way they are used to, at least not until January. For now, they are being encouraged to use their children’s logins to gain access to the system.
Some teachers are voicing more substantial concerns — that a new grading policy will lower the standards for graduation. And they say the Infinite Campus procedure for entering student grades stifles their ability to use their own judgment when assessing student work.
Haviva Golden, whose son attends Masterman, said the new system is “not very clear” in how and when assignments are given, making it difficult for her to talk with her son about potential difficulties.
“Certainly there is a lot of information here,” she said. “But it’s just not as transparent as it had been, where it was very straightforward before.”
Also, she said, although it’s easy to say that parents should log in via their children’s portal, in some cases the students might not be so willing to grant them access.
“I have no worries that my child isn’t going to let me in,” she said. “But it is his account, and I feel like I should be able to go in and look at my son’s [progress] without having to rely on his account.”
Karyn Lynch, chief of the Office of Student Support Services, said that the District is “continuing to work on the product and bring different phases up."
"In January," she said, "the parent portal phase will be up to provide that level of access.”
Melanie Harris, chief information officer for the District, said the idea was to let students and teachers get comfortable with the system first, before offering a parent portal.
“Our approach is always a staged approach; we never release everything at one time." That strategy, she said, “is more successful.”
Harris said the Office of Family and Community Engagement (FACE) would help parents with the change.
Jenna Monley, director of FACE, confirmed that.
“Our old system was a dinosaur,” she said. “With any new rollout, we’re trying to find our way, but we will be providing opportunities for parents and families to get support."
She said that there will be a program in January for supporting parents in using the new system.
Harris said the District was expecting a “smooth transition.”
This staged approach to implementing Infinite Campus has been in progress since February, when nurses and secretaries began converting information related to enrollment and health services.
But District teachers didn’t learn about it until their professional development meetings in the weeks before the school year began.
Ismael Jimenez, an African American Studies teacher at Kensington CAPA, said he is happy that the District is upgrading its student information system after almost 30 years, but he has some questions about its security protocol.
“I am happy that they got rid of that,” he said of the old system, “but as a teacher on the ground, I haven’t heard what the security protocol is. It hasn’t been articulated. And I definitely don’t like the new grading system.”
(See related commentary: Teachers speak out on District's new grading policy.)
Although the District maintains that the new grading system isn’t a result of the new student information system, Lynch said, that “each provided an opportunity to look at the other and make an enhancement.
“I think as a District we were looking at a variety of things and the opportunity to improve that went hand-in-hand with the implementation of the SIS.”
As for Jimenez’s security concerns, Harris said that the system uses the latest technology in security and that all data is encrypted, so even if it were hacked, it would be unreadable.
“The data is safe as it transports and it is safer when it is in front of you,” she said.
In addition to the lack of transparency and confusion with the grading, parents are missing the alerts they used to receive from their old systems. EdLine, the system used by such schools as Masterman and Central, sent alerts to keep parents abreast of their students’ progress.
Deb Cunningham, the parent of three students at Central High School, said that when the parent portal is up in January, she hopes the District brings that back.
“If a parent is not checking from September to January or isn’t able to get in to check or isn’t getting alerts, that’s a long period of time for a student to slip behind and a parent not be notified,” said Cunningham. “They would struggle to catch up from something like that.”
The District authorized $22.5 million over 12 years to cover training, maintenance, and technical licenses for Infinite Campus, and so far has spent $5.5 million over the first two years of the transition.
District spokesperson Lee Whack said people complaining about the change “have rose-colored glasses” regarding the limitations of the prior system. He said the changes bring much-needed improvements.
"Anytime anything changes, there are going to be complaints about the change, but what often gets lost is that the prior system was outdated and in some ways wasn’t working in the most efficient and effective manner,” he said.