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Access to up-to-date grades online and the ease of communication by email could be changing the face of high school parent-teacher conferences, those hours every quarter marked by a gymnasium full of teachers, long lines and five-minute meetings.

Case in point: Northeast High School, where fourth-quarter attendance at parent-teacher conferences is down substantially enough that administrators want to try a new approach this spring.

Instead of having an open format in the gym, teachers will set up meetings with parents of students who are failing, not on track to graduate or have issues such as poor attendance or not working to potential.

“It will be more of an invitational model,” said Principal Kurt Glathar.

Meetings will be 15 minutes, not five, and will be in classrooms, with students encouraged to attend.

“The whole idea here is not to create anxiety or a situation where parents feel they’re on the hot seat,” Glathar said. “The idea is to create a situation where parents feel we want to team up with them.”

Holding the conferences in the classroom -- where elementary school conferences have been for years -- will allow teachers to give parents a better idea of what happens in class, especially if it’s a hands-on subject such as art or engineering, he said. It also will offer more privacy than trying to have a conversation with a teacher while a line of other parents stands within earshot.

LPS administrators say they suspect attendance at parent-teacher conferences districtwide is down since the advent of the online grading system about four years ago, especially during the fourth quarter.

Several years ago, most schools changed from twice-a-year conferences held over a two-day period to one-day conferences each quarter, said Pat Hunter-Pirtle, LPS director of secondary education.

“One of the things that’s come up, when you get to April they’re not real well attended,” he said. “There are several reasons for that. Because parents have access to grades on a daily basis, they pretty much know how their kids are doing. Because of email, many parents are in pretty good contact with teachers.”

Glathar said Northeast counted 1,662 conferences in the first quarter last year. That dropped to 600 in the fourth quarter.

Teacher contracts set aside days for parent-teacher conferences, and this year, Northeast teachers will spend part of that time calling parents to set up appointments, he said.

Parents who don’t get a call can still meet with teachers.

“If parents still want to come up and talk to teachers, it doesn’t have to fit around parent-teacher conference time,” he said.

Teachers will contact parents of eight students, although it will probably take significantly more phone calls to actually arrange meetings with parents, Glathar said. In down time, teachers will touch base with other students, highlighting good things they've done.

“Positive notes might have as much impact as anything,” he said. “What we’re looking for (is) something that’s going to be significant and meaningful.”

One of the best things is the willingness of teachers to give something new a try, Glathar said. They’ve sent newsletters home to inform parents and will evaluate how well it works.

If it goes well, Hunter-Pirtle said, it could be an option for administrators at other schools.

Lincoln High Principal Mike Wortman said high schools may be at a point where they need to find creative ways to connect with parents.

But neither Glathar nor Hunter-Pirtle foresee the end of traditional parent-teacher conferences altogether.

“There is something about meeting with people face to face,” Hunter-Pirtle said. “I think we’ve got to be available to families.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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