Communication and efficiency are just two things that improved dramatically when Maine Township High School District, in Park Ridge, Illinois, implemented Follett Aspen Student Information System back in 2011. Since then, the district’s employees have learned a myriad of ways to use the program to save time, make better decisions, communicate and provide information to students and families. It’s been a remarkable transformation that continues to evolve and grow as staff discovers new capabilities and ways to accomplish tasks with the program.
“Our district’s use of Aspen is going really well,” said Hank Thiele, Assistant Superintendent for Technology and Learning. “What we’re seeing now is a good understanding of the tool by our teachers. They’re using it to enter grades as they come in, and almost all teachers use it to input assignments immediately, so students and parents alike know when an assignment is given, when it’s graded, and how they performed. And that’s essential communication – both from the teacher to the students and from the teacher to the parent. We must keep a triangle of communication going, and Aspen is essential for us to do that.”
The success of a student hinges on strong communication and engagement between the student, teacher and parent. However, years ago, this flow of information was constricted by inefficiencies in the system, making it a challenge for all parties to remain in sync, and parents had to really make an effort to stay involved in their child's academic growth. It required telephone calls (and more often than not, telephone tag), school visits, letters and notes, and constantly reminding and asking the student about assignments. Today, for schools like those in Maine Township's district, a well-run student information system streamlines the effort and allows accurate and timely distribution of information.
"When I first started teaching, parental communication always involved a letter or phone calls home," said Thiele. "Now, it has become much more asynchronous, where the teacher can use Aspen to push out a message or a progress report to parents on demand. And parents can quickly check on their student's progress, communicate with the teacher, or follow what's going on in the classroom, all without ever picking up the phone or waiting for the teacher to communicate with them."
This constant flow of information helps students gain better traction for learning and success. Aspen is designed for the moment-to-moment changes and built to adapt to those changes on short notice. With access to timely, actionable data available 24/7, not a day passes when information is not at everyone's fingertips to help each student succeed. Struggling students can be identified immediately, and when staff is armed with accurate information, an action plan can be implemented. Chris Sayre, a science teacher at Maine South High School, agrees, "It's nice to see everything in one place, and easy for me to track student problems. If a student is missing an assignment, I see it right away, and if they're getting an F, it comes up red. This allows me to print out these facts and turn it over to a counselor."
The communication tools within Aspen not only save him 'tons of time', they also allow parents and students to feel more comfortable communicating with him. Plus, parents and students can find answers to most questions within Aspen without ever contacting him, which encourages a transparent flow of information.
"Aspen is a great way to communicate with the kids," Sayre explained. "There is a function where I can link right to their emails, which I use often to tell them about homework or what they need to bring to class."
Aspen also provides teachers the ability to automatically distribute an email to parents if a student gets a grade on a test or assignment below a certain point. Declan, a sophomore, admitted it was annoying, but helpful. "My parents had the talk with me a few times," he laughed. "My parents really like Aspen; it helps them keep track of how my brother and I are doing, so they can get on us if they need to."
While instrumental in supporting struggling students, Aspen and its communication tools also empower all students to learn better and achieve success. “Our students are more in control of the information they receive, and they are able to use it efficiently, to shape what they do in the classroom,” said Thiele. “Students use Aspen to track their progress, almost like a bank account. They can make educated decisions about where they're going to spend their time, what they'll study for, and when they need to see a teacher for help. Keeping track of their own day-to-day responsibilities puts them in control of their education."
Jeff, a sophomore at Maine South, has reaped the benefits of the platform. "I use Aspen once or twice every day," he said. "It allows me to see what I got on a test. And if I missed what a teacher said in class, I can find it on Aspen, and if I miss a day, I can make up for it. It just lets me do my best and get better grades."
His classmate, Olivia, agrees. "I check Aspen all the time, whenever I am using my Chromebook™," she said. "It's nice because then I know, especially going into finals, what classes I might need to work harder in, and where I'm doing well."
As Sayre pointed out, getting kids to communicate in their preferred way is half the battle. "Kids all have smart phones and devices these days, so with Aspen, they can track and see if I've sent them a message or not, and they can react right away. Also, throughout the day, I can determine where they are in the building, which saves time when you want to reach a kid before they leave campus."
While administrative staff at Maine Township is thrilled with the new level of communication in all directions, they are equally excited about how they can use the incredible amount of data they collect. As Thiele pointed out, instead of separate ‘silos’ of information, Aspen allows users to look at all the data, pull out exactly what's needed, and then use the program's analytic tools to make decisions and solve problems.
“We’re keeping track of absences, tardiness, failing grades, honor roll figures and more. With Aspen, we don’t have to manually search and pull information out. Instead, we can see what we need, manipulate it, and use it constructively," said Thiele. Like Sayre, other teachers within the district have welcomed Aspen and are embracing all it can help them accomplish. Some teachers post their syllabus, assignments, and use the calendar, keeping it simple as they learn the ins and outs of Aspen. But many are at the other end of the spectrum, using Aspen to its full capabilities, said Thiele. "They're grading and posting their notes and handouts, collecting homework, and using the quiz features as formative assessments. The nice thing is each teacher can work at his or her own pace within Aspen to decide what's going to work best for his class, his students, and his teaching style."
At Maine Township, Aspen has become part of the environment, quietly humming along in the background and helping improve the way the district runs. Administrators enjoy the program's flexibility and the myriad possibilities ahead as they grow and adapt Aspen to meet their needs.
Everywhere he goes, Thiele sees students and teachers relying on Aspen. "If you walk through our libraries and see kids on screens, a chunk of them are on Aspen, and for many, it is the first thing they do. They're communicating back and forth and asking questions, challenging something they think might not be true or a grade they feel is unfair. Or they're working with a teacher to see how they can improve and do something better. It's great that everyone can get the information or the data they need, talk about it, and do something as a result."
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“Follett’s support with Aspen is great. It is a true partnership, and we’ve had only good experiences so far.” - Keith Segalla, Executive Director of Career and Technology Education