WESTCHASE — Back in the days of the horse and buggy, parents waited for that paper letter with the names of their children's new teachers.
They'd pick up the phone and ask each other: "Who does your son have?" They might or might not be pleased by the news.
At Westchase Elementary School, it's different.
A mother here has developed a website that lets parents log in their children's teacher assignments and connect with classmates before the first box of crayons has been opened.
It's called Are You In My Class and it's hugely popular.
Within an hour of mail delivery on Aug. 10, when letters arrived from the school, 20 parents had posted their kids' assignment information. By late Monday, about half the school's population of 975 was on the list.
"People love it," said Gail Frank, the Harvard-educated mother of two who designed the website and database. "It's such a nice bridge from the summer into the new school year."
It's also a convergence of old-time and current technology.
Kids wait at the curb for their snail mail. Moms snap their pictures and post them on Facebook. They enter the teacher assignments into Frank's site. More Facebook posts. "It's like Christmas morning," she said.
You can actually track the postal truck's route through Westchase as the database fills up.
Frank, 47, said she got the idea five years ago, when her daughter entered kindergarten. The other children from her preschool had friends in their classes. Frank's daughter knew no one.
Bit by bit, the project came together. The first year, she used a simple spreadsheet and kept emailing it around.
Today the process is automated. The database stays up for only three weeks, out of security concerns. Parents have the option of entering only their child's first name and last initial. And they are asked not to post the database to any other site, including Facebook. If Google finds it, Frank changes the link.
In addition to getting kids psyched for school, Are You In My Class provides a roster of parent email addresses so they can compare notes about the teachers.
More often than not, the information is reassuring. "In Westchase, we really have great teachers," Frank said.
Does all that information ever result in demanding calls to the principal?
Frank said she knows of only one Westchase parent who asked for a transfer for her child. "But that person has a habit of doing that anyway," she said.
Westchase principal Scott Weaver said he does get transfer requests, but not too many.
"Sometimes it's based on something they've heard," he said. Like any principal, he'll comply if there is a compelling reason — for example, a medical condition that requires the child to be closer to the office.
But more times than not, parents can be convinced to give the teacher a chance.
His take on Westchase parents overall? "They are very involved, they are very well educated and they look out for what's best for their children. I feel very comfortable here."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]