LAUSD: There may soon be an app for that

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Broken links, outdated documents, stale content, inconsistent page designs — Los Angeles Unified School District officials acknowledge that its disorganized, balkanized website is not much to be proud of.

District officials have been working to clear out some of the digital cobwebs and build tools to help online visitors cut through the clutter — tools like a new unified school choice application, for instance, and one-stop shop website for parents needing student records, emergency forms, school calendars and more.

Now, L.A. Unified school board members may ask for yet another tool that — some board members hope — could tie these various digital upgrade efforts together: a new L.A. Unified mobile app.

Board members will vote on a resolution at their meeting Tuesday calling for the creation of an L.A. Unified app anyone could download and use, but which would particularly serve as a hub for parents and students.

"This is the portal through which you are going to be able to access anything you need in the district," said board member Nick Melvoin, who initiated the resolution along with fellow board members Mónica García and Richard Vladovic.

Among the app's primary functions would be to serve as a two-way communication platform: in lieu of robo-calls or letters, L.A. Unified officials could send push notifications to deliver messages to either the whole district or to specific schools. Melvoin also envisions an app on which parents or community members could submit survey responses, report problems, or simply get in touch with a particular school or district office.

Melvoin wants a beta version of the app to be ready to go by the end of this school year. The resolution calls for the "first full phase of the app" to launch by July — "an aggressive timeline," said Shahryar Khazei, L.A. Unified's Chief Information Officer, "but we like challenges, so we're going to work hard at it."

It's not clear how much the effort would cost. It's not clear whether district officials will build the application themselves or outsource the project to a vendor.

The resolution gives district officials until January to draw up a plan for the app, during which time the district can gather parent input on what the app should include. Khazei said he also expects the district would issue a formal request for bids, noting it's possible that someone has already built a similar app and could be willing to license its use to the district at a reasonable rate.

In fact, L.A. Unified officials have already built similar software themselves: a "parent portal" — also known as "PASSport" — that taps into the district's massive troves of student data, giving parents who sign up access to student test scores, daily attendance records, class schedules, graduation progress, semester grades, suspension history. It's also supposed to display students' special education documentation.

Compare those things to what the resolution asks officials to include in L.A. Unified's proposed mobile app: access to "calendars, graduation requirements, school locations, and 'how-to' information regarding student issues such as special education, school discipline, bullying, and school lunches."

Melvoin said the district's usage numbers for PASSport have been lackluster. While he said the parent portal has benefited from a more recent public relations push, PASSport is still seven years old.

And while the parent portal is optimized for viewing on from a smartphone's web browser, it's not a mobile app — despite the fact that many low-income parents rely on their smartphones for internet access. Nearly 40 percent of parents used mobile phones to access L.A. Unified's "unified enrollment" forms during the application period that recently ended, Melvoin said.

Another tool in L.A. Unified's digital arsenal, Schoology, also includes some of the functionality the resolution lists for the proposed new application, providing parents with access to student grades on individual assignments, class materials, calendars, announcements, and push notifications. Schoology is an outside company with which the district has signed a contract worth up to $6.4 million.

But Melvoin said beyond any functionalities to be offered, he viewed the proposed app as part of the district's broader push to make its online presence more cohesive.

"Right now," Melvoin said, "you have to go to Schoology on one platform, you have to go to PASSport on one platform, you go to on another one, you go to your local school website on another. If on an app, you can get to all of those through one click, two clicks … it’s actually unifying it."