Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Fewer Fliers Sent Home as Schools Put More on Web

COMMACK, N.Y. — The back-to-school packets sent to all 7,800 students here in this hamlet on Long Island’s North Shore grew thicker each year with dozens of pages of notices, fliers and forms — adding up to more than $12,000 in postage alone last year.
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But this year, amid a lingering recession and increasing online activity, school officials decided to stop the madness. Teachers and principals were given strict instructions: Limit mailings to a single, first-class envelope per student — and post the overflow on the district’s Web site, in a newly created back-to-school section. The savings: $9,000 in stamps plus $12,000 in salaries for clerks who used to spend up to two weeks assembling the packets.

And, for parents like Debra Miller, a shrinking pile of paperwork to keep up with.

“Since the kids have been in school, there’s never been a pile less than 12 inches high on my kitchen counter,” said Mrs. Miller, a mother of two, who shoves the unsightly pile into a cabinet when she has company. “I can never get out from under the pile, and I’m not alone. We all talk about it.”

School districts across the country are aggressively cutting back on the avalanche of paper sent home, trying to exploit the much-cheaper communication channel of the Internet. While saving money is often the main motivation, some districts are finding that going paperless has other advantages, like eliminating classroom distractions, informing parents more quickly about test results or swine flu outbreaks, and promoting environmentalism.

Schools in the Chicago suburb of Naperville have adopted paperless policies and begun a “take back the backpack” campaign to cut down on fliers handed out to students. School boards from Georgia to Arizona have switched to paperless meetings, where online agendas and minutes have replaced inch-thick information packets.

Scarsdale Middle School will no longer print report cards this year — grades will be available through a secure section of its Web site called the parent portal, which officials said would save $1,000 annually and, they hope, reduce peer pressure over comparing grades. The principal, Michael McDermott, also e-mails his welcome-back-to-school letters, personalizing each one with a student’s name and homeroom assignment, rather than the generic “Dear sixth grader” printed notes of the past.

In Ridgewood, N.J., the district’s electronic newsletter includes happenings from school board meetings that would have missed the print deadlines. And a listserv for emergency information like school closings is a modern version of the classic school phone tree. “We’re not on there all the time,” said Debra Anderson, a spokeswoman. “We take a more conservative approach to using it so that when people do hear from us, they are more likely to open up.”

But the demise of the time-honored tradition of letters stuffed in backpacks has worried educators and parents who say that some families still do not have regular access to the Internet and may miss important information — and not even know it.

So districts like William Floyd, also on Long Island, have moved cautiously online, posting class assignments and schedules on its Web site but continuing to mail printed copies home.

“We’re doing both, with the idea we’ll eventually do less paper,” said Paul Casciano, superintendent of the district, where nearly 40 percent of the 9,700 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Dr. Casciano said that many students go online because information is posted several weeks earlier there, but that a few parents expressed concerns about the district’s move this fall to an electronic version of the school newsletter, Floyd Features, (estimated savings: $27,000) and electronic notifications about registered sex offenders who live in the area ($25,000). In response, the district will continue to make printed copies available at school offices, but will not send them home.

Here in Commack, district officials said that less than 5 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunches and nearly everyone had access to a computer. The drive to reduce paperwork began in April with Backpack News, a section of the district’s Web site for posting information about scholarships, activities, PTA fund-raisers and Little League sign-ups. Previously, such fliers were collected at each school’s main office, then handed out by classroom teachers once a week to students.

“Many parents didn’t see that paper anyway because it stayed in their lockers, and at the end of the year, we were wading through paper,” said James A. Feltman, the superintendent, who added that handing them out took time away from instruction — by his count, as much as 20 minutes a week, or 800 minutes a year. “That’s at least two full days of instructional time,” he said.

While Commack officials say they have received few complaints, some PTA leaders worry that parents can more easily ignore electronic pleas for membership or fund-raising now that they have to find them on the Web site.

Still, Maryann Montella, vice president of the PTA at Commack Middle School, said she and other parents had been asking to go paperless because “we saw the waste of paper.” The PTA would typically send out 2,000 fliers for a fund-raiser, and get back no more than 100 responses, she noted.

The electronic mailings have proved popular with computer-savvy students. Erin Storck, 12, who will be a seventh grader at Commack Middle School, said that she used to misplace the sports permission form after opening the back-to-school packet. Now she can just print it out whenever she needs one.

“With fliers, you have to go through tons of paper just to find one thing,” she said, “and this way you just click on a link and it says exactly what you need.”

Stephanie Miller, who will be in fourth grade at Burr Intermediate School, said she was happy that the pile of paperwork on the kitchen counter was now about half its usual size.

“It saves trees,” she said. “You used to get a piece of paper every day, and it kept getting bigger.” WINNIE HU


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