A series of theme-based high schools are springing up across New York City, based on a model that has been open for only a year but already is drawing rave reviews. Called the iSchool, this model school blends innovative technology with project-based curriculum modules–and its early success could have national implications.
In an open commons area on the fifth floor of SoHo’s Chelsea High School, where the iSchool is based, students gather proudly by their projects.
"Hi, would you like to come and see what we’re doing here at our school?" says one girl, dressed in a skirt and heels for her big day.
Over by a glazed brick wall are three high-end computer monitors, each displaying a unique project the students have decided to highlight to members of the press, parents, and New York City Department of Education (DOE) officials.
Above the taxi horns and other sounds of a busy city morning that drift in from the open windows, Bria Jojo Lewis, a ninth grader at the iSchool, gushes about her group’s 9-11 project.
"To help spread the word about the National September 11th Memorial and Museum, we talked to students from around the world and here in the U.S. about their perspectives on what happened here in New York. We used technology like video conferencing, eMail, and social networking," she says.
"As part of the project, we each typed out an interview we thought was interesting, and then we acted out the personal account while being videotaped," chimes in Lewis’ friend Maite Gonzalez, also a ninth grader at the iSchool. "In one interview we talked to this Australian girl about how she thought terrorism is just a part of life, so I found that interesting."
"And another student we talked to from Pakistan said he sees what happened on 9-11 differently, because he feels his people are victims, too, in a lot of ways," adds iSchool freshman Tristan King. "This is a work in progress, and it’s taken a semester, but soon we’re going to use video editing software to edit these enactments down and then post them on different outlets. The National 9-11 Museum is also going to use [our project] as part of its exhibit."
"But there are more projects–you wanna see?" says Lewis.
It’s not just the sheer enthusiasm of the students that signals iSchool must be doing something right; it’s also the fact that Chelsea High School–which just eight months ago received an "F" from the city DOE–is now seeing amazing results, thanks to the opening of the iSchool in September.
Last year, Joel Klein, chancellor of the city’s schools, decided he wanted to open seven selective public schools in New York City, and one was the iSchool, which would focus on technology and innovation.
With the help of Mort Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News and World Report and a well-known philanthropist, and Cisco Systems, the iSchool was created.
How it works
The iSchool opened with 100 ninth graders and is a four-year high school. Five percent of students are in special education, 67 percent are Title 1 students, and students come from all five boroughs.
As part of the citywide high school choice process, iSchool students must average 85 or above in all major subjects, have a good record of punctuality and attendance, and complete the iSchool’s online admissions process.
The iSchool is based on what it calls learning modules. These modules are interdisciplinary, project-based, and focus on real-world issues, or what co-principal Alisa Berger calls "Big Ideas," that bridge the divide between the high school experience and the real world.
One "Big Idea" is the humanities module for this semester, which focuses on the crisis in Zimbabwe.
Here, with the help of their teachers, students came up with a plan for digital activism and then decided what current topics and situations they should focus on for their class. (There are typically three teachers–a mix of full and part time–for each classroom of about 15 students.)
During eSchool News’ visit to the iSchool, students were about to hold a video conferencing session with Christina Lamb, a foreign press correspondent and the author of House of Stone, to ask her questions about her experience as a journalist covering the crisis in Zimbabwe.
Later in the quarter, students who read her book will participate in a virtual literature circle discussion with her.
"We created a page on our web site that talks about the crisis, some demographics about Zimbabwe, and why this topic is important," explained Lewis. "We’re also creating a MySpace page, a Facebook page, and whatever other social network we can use to help spread the word."
Another learning module helps students who’ve already mastered the algebra curriculum, and these students are participating in a geometry course taught by a math teacher from another DOE school in East Harlem, a professor from Teachers College, and a college student, who provide on-site, individualized support for students.
Students in this course have been challenged by Two Boots Pizzerias to develop recommendations for the placement of additional restaurants to gain greater coverage of Manhattan as Two Boots expands its business. Students will develop recommendations for Two Boots using Voronoi diagrams, which are advanced geometric systems that divide a plane into regions so that all points within a region are closest to the focal point of that region.
"It’s good that they know about online learning, how to use these tools, and how to go at their own pace," said math teacher Ridwah Falah. "They’ll need to know these things for undergraduate and grad school."
Projects like these are an integral part of the iSchool’s curriculum. Projects usually take about nine weeks, and students work in teams to tackle real-world problems for "client" organizations outside the school. The projects are designed to foster collaboration and interdisciplinary thinking. They also make sure to incorporate outside resources and experts.
"Adolescents want to do work that’s important and that has relevance to the world, not just something that gets finished and turned in on a piece of paper to a teacher," said co-principal Mary Moss.
The last module on display was an online biology course from CompassLearning. This interactive course, which incorporates audio, video, and written content, allows students to move at their own pace and focus on concepts they have not yet mastered.
iSchool students have access to many course offerings, including 37 Advanced Placement and other college credit courses, available online. They plan their course of study with an advisor and then learn at their own pace, receiving support as they need it.
The iSchool also is partnering with two-year colleges to allow students to earn an associate’s degree with one additional year of coursework in high school.
Looking from class to class–each spacious, each with multiple teachers, each student with his or her own laptop, and each student able to collaborate with his or her peers–it’s clear that each student takes charge of his or her own learning.
"Students also have access to their own home page when they sign in to our school’s portal," said Falah. "They can access their work, their class notes, notes the teacher has posted for all of their modules, resource links for each module, homework assignments, and can track their progress."
Parents and teachers also can track student progress online, through a learning management system built on the open-source platform Moodle.
"I like being able to be at home and check my class notes, and sometimes teachers, after you post your homework, will leave notes for you saying what you did right and what you did wrong," said Lewis.
"The students’ comfort with technology, their inclination to use it in very natural ways to solve their problems, is a resource that we’re wasting if we don’t bring [technology] into the classroom," said Berger.
Early results–and looking toward the future
Since the iSchool opened, attendance is at 94 percent–ten percent above the citywide average.
Also, after just five months at the school, 62 percent of students passed the Regents Exam–a requirement for high school diplomas in New York.
There are already 1,500 applications for 100 spots in next year’s freshman class. The iSchool will be adding approximately 110 students each year until the school reaches a capacity of 450 students, serving grades 9-12.
"Mort [Zuckerman] called me the other day and he said, ‘Joel, you don’t get a lot of things right, but you got this one right,’" said Klein during a press conference at the iSchool. "And he’s right. I am so impressed by what’s happening here."
Owing to the iSchool’s success, the DOE is preparing to roll out 40 additional schools within the next one to three years–all based on similar iSchool structures, said Gene Longo, engagement manager for global education at Cisco.
Nine specialized schools will open this September, Longo said, each focusing on a different theme. For example, one school will focus on green careers, and another on the history of cinema. One school will focus on gaming careers, and one on engineering and technology.
"Right now, Cisco is involved with every one of those nine schools to help with their tech support and much more," Longo said. "One school, Quest to Learn, which will be a Career and Technical Education high school that focuses on gaming, will also be working with the MacArthur Foundation, the Institute of Play, and the University of Arizona. All these schools will [include] the best in innovation and technology."
According to Longo, if a school wants to be considered for specialization and a program like the iSchool’s, it had to undergo a test of sorts.
Each school principal interested in participating has to create a video demonstrating what he or she envisions a day in the life of a student would be like if the school were specialized, and the principal has to imagine that he or she is the student.
"This certainly has national implications," said Joel Rose, chief executive of human capital for the city DOE. "With the iSchool, we’re codifying lessons learned, implementing tools that can be scalable, using free and open-source resources, and leveraging the best experts to go online so that anyone who wants to learn, can. The iSchool really is the engine for educational innovation."
Note to readers:
Don’t forget to visit the Empowering Education Through Technology resource center. Integrating technology into the classroom can be a challenge without the right guidance. Go to: Empowering Education Through Technology
That success includes long waiting lists for future iSchool slots, average attendance 10 percentage points above the city average, and gratifying results on the state’s rigorous Regents Exams.