Central School Principal Ryan Mollet remembers the days when nabbing a coveted time slot for the annual November parent-teacher conferences invoked a rough-and-tumble dash to the sign-up sheets.
"It was like a roller derby upstairs in the library," recalled Mollet, who expressed relief that next month, Glencoe District 35 parents will be able to register for conferences online via a family access portal at the Skyward student data system — a website already familiar to parents.
Seventh grade science teacher Neil Couturier is equally pleased with the ease of communication between Central School teachers and parents in the digital age, and not only because moms and dads can sign-up for conferences from their smartphones.
"There are no more 'surprises' at conferences any more, as most parents already know what their children's grades are from checking the website, long before they meet with me in November," said Couturier.
After more than two decades in the classroom, Couturier welcomes what he calls "an evolution in school conferences."
"When I first started teaching years ago, it was all a great mystery, and students and parents didn't know where things stood until they tore open an envelope and saw the grades on a report card," Couturier said. "Now, the conference offers the opportunity to dig deeper, to bring the data to the table and have more of a problem solving discussion."
Indeed, with parent-teacher conferences kicking-off across the North Shore later this month and into November, school officials and parents are applauding the shifting dynamics of both the sign-up process and the conference itself.
Gone are the days when many parents were blindsided on conference day by news that Johnny was earning a "D" in math and routinely forgetting to complete his homework assignments. Instead, teachers like Jill Gontovnick, a 5th grade teacher at Highcrest Middle School in Wilmette, said many educators now actually look forward to November conference days. They view the meetings as a time for reflection, celebration and setting goals for the student's future, she said.
"Conferences are an important piece of communicating with parents and a highly effective tool, but it is only one piece of communication," said Gontovnick, who has taught at the District 39 school for 15 years, and who also still corresponds with parents old school-style — with phone calls home and in-person meetings.
"Technology has opened the door to growing and strengthening the parent-teacher relationship, with email at your fingertips and parents being able to track their children's progress.
"But the real goal is to empower students to take ownership of their learning," Gontovnick added. "I think of it as a triangle — parents, teachers and students. When a student feels comfortable in the classroom and knows they have the support of their parents at home, then everyone is on the same page."
Glencoe parent Courtney Berlin, the mother of a kindergartner and second grader at South School, said she makes a concerted effort to get to know her children's teachers before parent-teacher conferences.
"Being able to email their teachers is very effective, but we're also able to access our teachers in all ways — on-line, by phone and in person," she said.
Lisa Metz of Wilmette said she will aim for an afternoon time slot when she registers on-line this week for Central School's parent-teacher conferences, which are slated for Nov. 7 and Nov. 8.
"I'm home with my kids, so I hold off a little on the registration and let the parents whose schedules are a little tighter go first," said Metz, a mother of three children, who noted that evening time slots seem to be in high-demand these days for dual career families.
Gail Brown, a technology facilitator at Marie Murphy School in Wilmette, recalls the era before online conference registration as rather stressful, with near altercations between parents in the school hallways on sign-up day.
After Avoca District 37 opened access to online conference sign-up at 9 a.m., Monday, Oct. 7, Brown was glad to report that by mid-week, more than half the parents at Marie Murphy had already signed up for the Oct. 23-23 conferences, which run from 3 p.m. – 7 p.m.
"Because the whole purpose of the conferences is to meet with parents, we've tried to make more availability in the evenings," Brown said.
"With online registration, there are very few issues with parents not being able to find a time slot," added Catherine Wang, the director of curriculum and instruction for District 35. "And we usually have 100 percent of our parents participating."
Back at Central School in Glencoe, after testing a miniature wind turbine in Couturier's science class, 7th grader Maddie Hahamy,12, offered a student's perspective of parent-teacher conferences.
"Everything is always fine at my conferences, but afterwards, when I ask them how it went, my parents usually joke and tell me, 'Everyone said you were horrible,'" Maddie said with a chuckle.
"I'm nervous and excited about my conference," added Sophie Fichera, 13. "But when my parents get back home, they're always happy."