The Howard County Public School System will introduce two new software systems this month that it says will make it easier for students, parents and teachers to stay connected and exchange information.
Synergy is the new student information system. It replaces Aspen, which was fully implemented in 2011 and wasn't considered user-friendly by many in the school community.
Canvas is a new learning management system. The school system says it will enhance the way students, parents and teachers go about their daily routines by providing up-to-date access to information.
"The unified tools and technology that we are implementing beginning this year are unlike anything we have ever done before," said school system Communications Director Rebecca Amani-Dove.
The school system reported to the Board of Education that the new programs will cost $3.9 million over five years; $1.7 million of that for implementation and the first year. The cost of implementation and support for Aspen was $3.6 million for seven years, it said.
The school system, which opened its doors to staff Aug. 17, one week before students, has created a portal on its homepage called HCPSS Connect that will access the Synergy and Canvas systems.
"We wanted the user to have a one-stop shopping experience," said Justin Benedict, director of data management for the school system.
It means only one user name and one password will be needed for parents to access a student's attendance records and grades, calendars, announcements, instructional resources and assignment scores.
"The two programs are going to enhance how we educate and communicate with our students," said Centennial High School history teacher Sherri Levy. "Never before have we had such powerful tools that mirror the resource and communication platforms that are used in businesses and colleges. This can only help prepare students further for the skills required when they graduate and enter either college or more into their careers."
The school system has designated teachers at each school — Levy heads the team at Centennial — to train other staff members. The instructors have had two training sessions. Other staff members had their initial training in early May and have had training sessions this week.
Parents can complete the family file, which replaced the emergency procedure card, through Synergy. Information used last year will automatically transfer to the new system.
Parents and students will have to wait until Aug. 31 to have full access to Synergy. That also is the date Canvas will go live. Amani-Dove said delaying the start for a week was to "allow our teachers and schools adequate time to input class lists and post content to their course pages." She also said that "teachers will begin to use the system gradually with ample professional development and support."
Levi said that Synergy "is where students will be enrolled, where teachers will take attendance, review interim and report card grades and write comments. The program calculates quarter averages, generates progress reports and report cards. Students and parents can see the grades."
Canvas, said Levi, "allows students to access the courses they are enrolled in to view assignments, take quizzes, submit homework, work collaboratively with classmates and communicate with their teachers. For teachers, the system allows them to obtain and share resources and calendars from various content, school and grade-level communities. It also provides an area for teachers to build and share course content and activities for teachers to communicate with their students through email, text messages or both. For parents this will be a great place to track their child's progress."
Parents will be able to see how their student is progressing with homework and other assignments.
Amani-Dove said that previously a parent with two high school students and one in middle school, for example, might have to go to six different websites for information.
"It's just too much to handle, and you're really not staying connected," she said. "But now you go to one place and every teacher is posting what's happening in their class every day and so it becomes part of your routine. You're staying connected to what's happening."
In Canvas, parents will be able to choose what level of information they want to receive, how much messaging they want and how they want to be contacted (email, text, phone).
When parents register in Synergy, the school system will link their email to all their children and take that information and put it in Canvas. Once in Canvas, a parent will see each child and the classes they are taking in one place.
"It's not only a time saver, it's giving parents daily access to information about what's happening in their child's classroom that they've never had before," said Amani-Dove.
Amani-Dove said the Canvas system is "not creating more work for the teacher. It's creating a different process for teachers, and because of that new process, and it's all in one system, we are able to give parents a window into it."
And for teachers who have used multiple resources in the past to create their own homepage, they can still do that. However, teachers will have to copy that homepage into Canvas, so everything is under one roof.
Amani-Dove said the school system has posted support materials in HCPSS Connect for parents to help them learn the new systems.
"By the time they have access on August 31, there will be many more available," Amani-Dove said. "Between the intuitive nature of the platforms, the comprehensive support documents, and human technical assistance that we are providing on a school-based and system-wide level, parents will be able to navigate the systems easily."
Amani-Dove said Synergy and Canvas provides "new tools that students and educators have been asking for."
But she added that "any type of educational tool is only as effective as the educator that is leveraging the tool. Our game-changers are our teachers and we fully expect they are going to take this new technology and use it to accomplish amazing things with their students, as they have always done with the physical and digital tools that we have offered for years."