Happy Holidays!

eSchool News is suspending its daily coverage of school technology news until after the holidays. Our next update to the web site will be Wednesday, January 2. Best wishes to all for a happy holiday season!

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FCC: Rural Alaskan residents can hook into internet through schools

A new ruling by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opens the possibility for residents in remote rural areas to connect to the internet after hours from their local school or library.

In a unanimous ruling released Dec. 3, the FCC approved a petition from the state of Alaska to let its residents use excess capacity from a school’s or library’s eRate-funded internet connection—but only when the school or library is not in session, and only if this extra use doesn’t result in an extra fee.

Many schools in rural Alaskan villages that are reachable only by air or water depend on satellite telecommunications for their internet access. These satellite services often are provided on a “non-usage sensitive” basis, meaning schools pay a set fee for unlimited use of the service. Once school lets out for the day, however, this service goes unused.

Alaska has 135 communities with such “non-usage sensitive” connections, according to state figures.

Most of these communities use eRate discounts to pay for the satellite hook-ups in their schools and libraries. On average, Alaska’s schools receive about $12 million annually from the program.

Current eRate rules require participants to certify that services obtained through the program are used for educational purposes only. However, the FCC said it can waive its rules if special circumstances warrant the exception and if it serves the public interest.

In response to a petition from Alaska state officials, the FCC determined that it was appropriate to waive this rule for Alaska, providing certain conditions were met.

The FCC order says schools and libraries can’t charge the eRate program for any additional costs associated with providing internet access to residents’ homes. In addition, access to the school’s link is allowed only after school or library hours, and only in communities where there is no local or toll-free dial-up internet access available.

“We believe that these conditions are appropriately tailored to narrow the scope of the waiver to ensure the integrity of the schools and libraries mechanism, yet broad enough to provide relief to rural remote communities in Alaska,” the FCC said. “We also conclude that granting Alaska’s waiver will serve the public interest.”

Alaska has approximately 240 sparsely populated communities that don’t have local or toll-free dial-up internet access because they are so isolated by both weather and terrain, Alaska told the FCC in its petition. Instead, residents in these isolated communities must make a long distance call to get online.

That figure has dropped somewhat in the meantime, probably to around 200 villages, said John Greely, a special assistant to Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, who leads the state Telecommunications Information Council. A study by the Denali Commission earlier this year put the number of villages without local internet connections at 164.

In a statement, Ulmer said he was pleased with FCC’s decision because it would help narrow the digital divide in his state.

“Allowing Alaskans in remote communities without toll-free dial-up service to piggy-back on the internet access that is already available in schools is a win-win situation for all of us in terms of distance learning, economic development, and communication between Alaska’s many regions,” Ulmer said.

Ulmer, who serves as a member of the FCC’s Local and State Government Advisory Committee, said internet service providers will have to pay for any additional equipment needed to deliver the service to residents’ homes.

Norris Dickard, a senior associate at the Benton Foundation, said he agrees wholeheartedly with the FCC’s decision.

“As is common in many rural areas, the school is the center of the community,” Dickard said. “Residents of Alaska will be able to take advantage of the unused telecommunications capacity that the eRate has made possible, without the restriction that it be used solely for education.”

Dickard said it’s important to note that this ruling is related to satellite services and how they often are provided on a non-usage basis, which is a special case.

But “I think more states and districts may be looking at how the broader community can take advantage, through schools and libraries, of the telecommunications services the eRate has made possible,” he said. “The Alaska case could open the door to other such efforts, which—if as carefully considered and narrowly tailored as this ruling—could be highly beneficial.”

The Alaska Telephone Association urged the FCC not to grant the exemption, saying there were better ways to solve the challenge without hurting the long-term growth potential of private internet service companies in rural Alaska and that members of the industry group were working on a system that would being broadband and internet service to all villages with more than 25 residents.

Links:

Federal Communications Commission
http://www.fcc.gov

FCC ruling
http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-01-350A1.doc

State of Alaska
http://www.state.ak.us

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House, Senate panel OK mandatory testing as part of education bill

Educational technology advocates are quietly celebrating the survival of a handful of specific technology programs in the final version of the education bill approved by House and Senate negotiators Dec. 11. But their victory was overshadowed by the approval of other, more controversial measures, such as mandatory testing of students in reading and math.

Under the plan, millions of students in grades three through eight would be required to take the annual tests, with their scores affecting for the first time how federal aid to their schools is allocated and spent.

“These reforms mean new hope for students in failing schools and new choices for parents who want the best education possible for their children,” said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who chaired the House-Senate committee that approved the bill.

It now goes to the House and Senate for a final vote, where it is virtually certain to win final passage in the next few days, despite opposition from leading education groups. Lawmakers expect the bill to be on President Bush’s desk by next week.

While Boehner and others called the measure groundbreaking, some observers complained about the final product.

National Education Association President Bob Chase called it “a tremendous disappointment,” saying it would force states to develop and give the annual tests without enough funding from Washington—at a time when they are being hit hard by a recession.

“Considering this bleak fiscal climate, these unfunded and underfunded mandates are irresponsible,” Chase said. “The broad policy goals are laudable, but the lack of support to states suffering an economic decline is lamentable.”

Other opponents of the package include the National School Boards Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the American Association of School Administrators.

Overall, the education bill authorizes $26.5 billion next year for elementary and secondary education—about $8 billion more than this year and about $4 billion more than Bush requested, but nearly $6 billion less than Senate Democrats wanted.

The annual reading and math tests for all students in grades three through eight would tell states which schools are effective. Those with persistently low test scores would have to give some of their federal aid to students for tutoring or transportation to another public school. More aid would flow to schools whose scores don’t improve for two years in a row, but if scores don’t improve afterward, a school’s staff could be changed.

States and school districts also would get more freedom over how they spend federal dollars, but they’d be required to send annual “report cards” showing a school’s standardized test scores compared to others locally and statewide.

Also included is Bush’s signature reading program, which gives schools nearly $1 billion per year for the next five years in hopes that every student will be able to read by third grade.

Ed-tech programs survive

Overshadowed by the controversial testing requirement and other high-profile measures is the fact that a handful of key technology programs from Title III of the current Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will be preserved, kept apart from a new technology block-grant program approved by lawmakers Oct. 30.

The programs in question—Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PT3), Star Schools, Community Technology Centers, and Ready to Learn—were kept as separate programs in the Senate version of the bill, but the House had voted to fold all but Ready to Learn into the $1 billion block-grant program.

As a compromise, PT3 was moved to Title II of the Higher Education Act and is no longer part of ESEA. Legislators have authorized it for 2002 and 2003 “at such sums as may be necessary.”

PT3 makes grants to partnerships between school districts and colleges of education to train preservice teachers how to integrate technology into their teaching before they graduate. In its three years of existence, the program has made 441 grants totaling $275 million.

“We are thrilled that we have two more years of life for a program that truly is reinventing teacher preparation across the nation, even beyond technology,” said Don Knezek, director of the National Center for Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology, which is overseen by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). “This gives us an opportunity to see further results of the program before it is block-granted or turned into a program to stand on its own.” PT3 was funded at $125 million in fiscal 2001, up from $75 million in its first two years. “What we’d ideally like to see is $125 million this year and a similar amount the next year,” Knezek said. “Anything below $100 million will seriously cripple moving the program forward.”

The Star Schools, Community Technology Centers, and Ready to Learn programs were moved from Title V, Part B of the newly reauthorized ESEA (“Enhancing Education through Technology”) to Title V, Part D (“Fund for the Improvement of Education.”)

“Generally we are very pleased with the way the technology programs have come out—they did not really change from point A to point B,” said Jee Hang Lee, senior legislative associate for Leslie Harris & Associates, which represents the Consortium for School Networking and ISTE in legal matters.

The Fund for the Improvement of Education is a separate fund for the education secretary to keep certain programs “of national significance,” Lee said. Transfering the technology programs to this fund amounts to a bit of political gamesmanship that lets House Republicans boast that they trimmed ESEA from 55 to 45 programs, he explained.

“It is our expectation that the money for Star Schools, Community Technology Centers, and Ready to Teach will not come out of the [$1 billion authorized for the] technology block grants,” Lee said.

While ed-tech advocates were happy to see these programs survive in the bill’s final version, some are concerned that a new measure known as “transferability” might divert money earmarked for technology to more pressing needs.

The measure allows school districts that meet certain eligibility requirements to transfer up to 50 percent of their federal funding from certain programs—including technology—to other uses. Lee said he fears the bill’s testing provisions will force schools to take advantage of this flexibility by using technology funds to help meet the new accountability requirements.

Links:

United States Senate
http://www.senate.gov

United States House of Representatives
http://www.house.gov

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org

Details of education bill approved by House-Senate conference committee:

  • Authorizes $26.5 billion in 2002 for K-12 education—about $8 billion more than this year. The total is $4 billion more than President Bush requested but nearly $6 billion less than Senate Democrats wanted.

  • Requires annual state tests in reading and math for every child in grades three through eight beginning in 2004-05 school year. Schools whose scores fail to improve two years in a row could receive more federal aid. If scores still fail to improve, low-income students can receive funding for tutoring or transportation to another public school. A school in which scores don’t improve over six years could be restaffed. In schools already considered poor performers, parents could receive tutoring or transportation funds as early as this fall.

  • Requires schools to raise all students to reading and math proficiency in the next 12 years. Schools must also close gaps in scores between wealthy and poor students and white and minority students.

  • Allows churches or other religious groups to provide tutoring and after-school programs.

  • Requires states to ensure within four years that all teachers are qualified to teach in their subject area. States could require teachers to pass subject tests or major in their field in college.

  • Allows school districts to spend federal teacher-quality funds on training, hiring, or higher salaries for teachers.

  • Provides aid to build new charter schools and help existing ones.

  • Requires schools to develop periodic “report cards” showing a school’s standardized test scores compared to others locally and statewide.

  • Provides nearly $1 billion per year for the next five years to improve reading—three times as much as this year—with a goal of making sure every student can read by third grade.

  • Provides $1 billion for a technology block-grant program. States would administer 50 percent of the funds to local school districts competitively and 50 percent according to Title I formula.

  • Allows 50 states to use a small portion of their federal funds as they wish. A pilot program further frees seven states and 150 school districts from most restrictions on spending.

  • Allows districts to transfer up to 50 percent of funds from particular programs—including teacher quality, safe and drug-free schools, and technology—to other programs. Districts would be able to move funds for any educational purpose but would be required to fulfill each program responsibility outlined in their plan that is submitted to the state.

  • Targets Title I funds, slated for low-income students, to the poorest students.

  • Requires schools to test students with limited English skills to ensure they are proficient in English after three consecutive years of attending school in the United States.

  • Strips federal funding from any school district that discriminates against the Boy Scouts or similar groups that bar homosexuals.

  • Provides money to help schools form partnerships with colleges and universities to improve science and math instruction.
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    Survey ranks states’ use of ed-tech

    South Dakota leads the nation in school technology for the second year in a row, according to the 2001 Digital State survey conducted by the Center for Digital Government.

    Sponsored by the Progress & Freedom Foundation and Government Technology magazine, the survey rates the progress state governments have made in adopting and using digital technologies to improve the delivery of services to their citizens, including law enforcement, social services, electronic commerce, digital democracy, and education.

    Last year, South Dakota ranked first in the categories of K-12 and higher education. This year, the survey compressed the two categories into one. Illinois and Utah tied with South Dakota for the top position in education this year under the new criteria; all three states received a perfect score in the survey.

    Rankings were based on an assessment of how many administrative functions can be performed online for state colleges and universities; how many colleges post classroom information online and provide distance education programs; whether progress reports on public schools and students are available online; and whether states have deployed electronic learning (eLearning) systems.

    In largely rural South Dakota, online services provide educational opportunities that were not available previously, the report asserts. About 70 percent of the state’s 127,000 K-12 students can be online simultaneously, it says. In addition, the state’s Digital Dakota Network connects all state schools and libraries, allowing teachers and students hundreds of miles apart to talk in real time.

    “We’ve really minimized the educational digital divide,” said Otto Doll, South Dakota’s chief information officer. “We [not only] try to leverage … the subjects that are taught, but we are able to get better teachers and make them accessible to people in small towns.”

    Most of the state’s pupils graduate from high schools with fewer than 100 students, he said, which underscores the need for technology to level the playing field.

    South Dakota public schools have a computer for every 3.5 students, making them the most wired in the nation, according to state officials.

    Utah also received a perfect rating, largely because of its Utah Education Network (UEN). Launched in 1994, UEN is a publicly-funded consortium providing internet access and educational technology resources for Utah’s public schools, libraries, colleges, and state agencies. The network was upgraded to a fully-functioning web portal earlier this year.

    For teachers, UEN delivers professional development resources, lesson plans, and online tools to help them enhance their skills and integrate technology into their classrooms. Students can access distance education classes for high school and college credit, and the network’s Pioneer Library delivers online library resources to the state.

    Illinois, which also scored 100 percent on the Center for Digital Government’s survey, provides high-speed access to data, video, and audio communications to the state’s colleges, public libraries and museums, governments, and school districts through its Illinois Century Network. Nearly 3,500 schools were connected as of September.

    Besides an extensive distance education program for higher education and community members, the state launched the Illinois Virtual High School in January 2001. Sixteen full-semester courses were offered last spring, with a total enrollment of 297 students from 43 high schools. This fall, the online school has expanded its offerings to 69 courses, and 162 high schools have signed up to participate.

    In addition, the Illinois Learning Academy provides online training for teachers who wish to develop their technology integration skills via the internet.

    Cathilea Robinett, executive director of the Center for Digital Government, attributes these states’ successes to the leadership of their respective governors.

    “If there is leadership and vision at the state level, then that’s a big push. Those states have Gov. [William] Janklow in South Dakota, Gov. [George] Ryan in Illinois, and Gov. [Mike] Leavitt in Utah,” she said. “They are really pushing the ed-tech agenda.”

    Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania share the fourth-place ranking. According to the report, Georgia considers itself a leader in “one-on-one computing” and has implemented a unique pilot project in eight middle schools. Each student and teacher in the pilot schools has been given a laptop computer, as well as internet access from their homes. State officials say they might expand the program to other schools if the pilot is successful.

    North Carolina has implemented an extensive computer system that tracks information about each of the state’s students. The state is in the process of making this information—which includes disciplinary actions, student attendance, and test results—available to parents online.

    The report cited Pennsylvania’s seven cyber charter schools as evidence of its digital progress. Students receive computers and internet access and are not required to participate in a traditional school setting. All course work is completed and submitted online.

    Rounding out the top 12 states in digital education were Kansas (No. 7), New York (No. 8), and Arizona, Indiana, Minnesota, and Washington, which tied for the ninth spot.

    Other Digital State surveys measured areas such as digital democracy, health and welfare, justice systems, eCommerce, and other services. Results from all sections of the survey were tallied to reveal how states rank in their overall delivery of digital government. Washington was the overall winner for the third year in a row.

    The education element of the survey was sponsored by AMD.

    Links:

    Center for Digital Government
    http://www.centerdigitalgov.com

    Progress & Freedom Foundation
    http://www.pff.org

    Government Technology magazine
    http://www.govtech.net

    2001 Digital State Survey, Part IV: Education
    (Top 26 States*)
    State Rank
    Illinois 1
    South Dakota 1
    Utah 1
    Georgia 4
    North Carolina 4
    Pennsylvania 4
    Kansas 7
    New York 8
    Arizona 9
    Indiana 9
    Minnesota 9
    Washington 9
    Maine 13
    Montana 14
    Connecticut 15
    Florida 15
    Iowa 15
    Mississippi 15
    Oregon 15
    Nebraska 20
    Idaho 21
    Kentucky 21
    Ohio 21
    Louisiana 24
    New Jersey 24
    Wisconsin 24
    *The Digital State survey only ranked the top half of states.

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    Microsoft amends $1 billion school settlement offer

    Microsoft Corp. on Dec. 10 announced changes to its offer to settle private antitrust lawsuits by donating reduced-price software, computers, and training to needy schools. The changes are designed to answer criticism the donations will extend the company’s market dominance into education.

    Microsoft lawyer Tom Burt urged U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz to accept the settlement, saying schools would benefit from the settlement plan, not the software giant. He said schools would be able to make their own technology choices.

    “This is going to be a platform-neutral settlement that is not going to be influenced by Microsoft,” Burt argued in urging acceptance of the deal that would provide an estimated $1 billion in school donations.

    Among the settlement changes unveiled by Microsoft:

    Changes in the way the foundation that would oversee the money will pick its board members. Microsoft said two software makers are joining the foundation: Connectix Inc., which makes a program that lets Windows work on rival Apple Computer Inc. computers, and education software company Key Curriculum Press.

    Also, the foundation, not Microsoft, would oversee the doling out of $90 million in teacher training funds that are part of the settlement.

    The changes are designed to address the criticisms of some educators and Microsoft rivals that the plan would simply encourage students to use Microsoft software and thus extend the software giant’s market dominance.

    Last week, Apple told the court the settlement constitutes a massive subsidy for the adoption of Microsoft products in schools. Apple holds nearly half the pre-college educational market, and analysts said that share could be threatened by the settlement.

    An Apple spokesman said the company stance has not changed, despite Microsoft’s latest concessions.

    Under the proposal, Microsoft would provide at reduced prices more than $1 billion worth of Microsoft software, refurbished personal computers, and other resources to more than 16,000 of the nation’s poorest schools.

    But in court documents filed with Motz, Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs argued the true cost of the settlement might be less than $1 million for Microsoft.

    Burt said he hopes more companies will join the foundation and stressed that schools can make their own technology choices.

    “This is not a settlement that imposes any solutions on local schools,” he said. “The eligible schools are enabled to implement local technology plans.”

    More than 200 educators, parents, technology experts, and private citizens have written to the judge who is reviewing the proposal. The vast majority oppose the settlement’s terms—although many say they would welcome some sort of plan to settle the case by giving schools badly needed technology resources.

    Educators and minority-rights groups also have taken issue with Microsoft’s plan to provide schools with refurbished, used computers. Microsoft says providing less-expensive computers enables the company to give schools more computers. But school administrators say refurbished computers are much costlier to maintain.

    The settlement effort of the private class-action lawsuit comes as Microsoft continues to attempt to reach a deal with nine states seeking a remedy against the software giant for violating antitrust laws.

    Links:

    Microsoft Corp.
    http://www.microsoft.com/education

    Responses and Opinion submitted to the court
    http://www.mdd.uscourts.gov/webdatapages1/DisplayMISC.asp

    Apple Computer Inc.
    http://www.apple.com

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    New wave of schools offer high-tech, hands-on training

    A new generation of schools is cropping up across the country—small, technology-driven magnet schools that focus on providing students with the 21st century skills they need to succeed in the digital world.

    The Blue Ridge Technical Academy is one of the first such charter schools in Virginia, and it has all the characteristics that define this new breed of educational institution.

    The classes are small, with fewer than 10 students in most. Teachers work individually with their pupils. There are no bells, no crowded halls, and no public intercom system. There are few discipline problems, because all of the students want to be there. Absences are rare, and there are no security guards.

    At Blue Ridge Academy, near Roanoke, each student has a laptop computer provided by the school. Students can take the laptops home at night and on weekends.

    While at school, the students have access to study carrels and a lounge. The desks, chairs, and other furnishings are new, and most students agree the atmosphere is relaxed.

    “It’s definitely different,” said Alex Corcoran, a freshman at Patrick Henry High School, where he attends classes in the morning before going to the academy in the afternoon.

    “We’re pretty nontraditional in everything from the instructional method to the building and environment,” said Principal Terri Webber.

    Located in the Roanoke Higher Education Center, Blue Ridge combines academics, technology, and workplace training, including core job skills and career counseling for students in grades 10 to 12. The school offers training in health and medical science technology, fiber optics, manufacturing technology, eCommerce, and computer information technology.

    Instruction is given with a hands-on approach. The emphasis is on problem-solving that helps students focus on practical business applications of academic concepts. Technology is the cornerstone of the program.

    The school—which has been open for three months—has 25 students, who come from Patrick Henry and William Fleming high schools. Another dozen students are scheduled to enroll in the second semester. School officials project an enrollment of 75 to 100 by next fall and 200 by the fall of 2003.

    Corcoran, a former state champion chess player, said he has found a school he loves. “I like the environment because the Higher Education Center is clean and well-kept. The teachers know what they’re teaching. Everyone here is focused because they want to get the most out of it.”

    At Patrick Henry, Corcoran takes English, history, science, and French. At Blue Ridge, he studies geometry, computer science, and business careers. He is a freshman but was admitted to the technical school, which usually doesn’t accept students until they are sophomores, because he passed algebra and earned three high school credits while he was in middle school.

    Don Knezek, director of the International Society for Technology in Education’s National Center for Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology, said schools like Blue Ridge Academy are becoming more common.

    “My sense it that the reason we see a proliferation of these [schools] is that there are some natural conditions that exist that make them make sense,” he said.

    One reason is there’s a huge demand for skilled personnel in the information technology (IT) industry, even during an economic downturn, Knezek said. These schools also cater to the type of student who can sometimes slip through the cracks in a more traditional educational setting.

    Erica Wilkins, a William Fleming sophomore, thinks the technical school will help prepare her for a good job. “I came mainly because I thought it would be good job training. I’m happy I decided to come.”

    For Cedric Petty, the small classes are one of Blue Ridge’s top attractions. “It is not as much distraction as having 25 students in a class,” said Petty, a sophomore at Patrick Henry. “I think this will give me more job opportunities.”

    The students do not have to pay tuition because the charter school is financed with federal, state, and local funds. The Roanoke School Board created the school and helps oversee it. School officials are allowed flexibility in running the school because charter schools are free of some state regulations.

    Roanoke also provides bus transportation from Patrick Henry and William Fleming to academy students. The school has four teachers, a guidance counselor, principal, and director, but officials say it will add more staff as enrollment increases.

    It is described as an employer-linked school because the staff is working closely with business and industry leaders in designing the curriculum. Business partnerships are a major component in the program, which will include internships, mentoring, job shadowing, guest lectures, career seminars, and orientation sessions.

    “Our intention is not only to expose students to technology fundamentals, but to equip them with the operational technical skills that will make them highly competitive for emerging technology jobs in western Virginia,” said Al Moyer, the academy’s director. All students completing the program will receive a national, state, or local certification of technical qualifications.

    The academy offers programs both for students who wish to earn a high school diploma and for those seeking a General Educational Development (GED) certificate. Students in the GED program attend the academy for the full school day, while those seeking a high school diploma spend a half-day at the academy and the other half at their home high school.

    The school operates with a philosophy that character, self-discipline, and hard work are essential components of educational and workplace success. All students must have parental permission to enroll and are required to sign a personal contract covering appropriate dress and behavior, consistent attendance, and adherence to principles of integrity.

    The academy is one of eight schools in the United States that recently received a $90,000 grant from Johnson & Johnson, an international manufacturer of health care products, to boost the school’s curriculum in health and medical-related careers. The grant will enable the charter school to build a science learning lab and develop a curriculum to train students for a broad range of occupations in the health industry, Webber said.

    Blue Ridge’s environment has already changed some students’ attitudes, Webber said.

    “We have some students who had never thought about college, but in this setting, being in the same building where college students have classes, some are beginning to feel differently about themselves,” she said.

    According to Knezek, the benefit of technology-focused magnet schools is that students “can get their hands on real work.”

    “This [phenomenon] is due to a convergence of factors. Industry, schools, and philanthropies are all willing to give funds to support these schools, and there has been some documented success with these programs,” he said.

    “Most of these programs … are set up in a way that allows students to go on to higher education or to work. Once they experience success, they are free to choose their avenues of pursuit,” Knezek said. “It is an exciting endeavor, and it serves a national work force need.”

    Links:

    International Society for Technology in Education
    http://www.iste.org

    Blue Ridge Technical Academy
    http://roanoke.k12.va.us/schools/brta/index.html

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    Find Your School

    Use this map to get information on any of the approximately 92,000 public schools in the Department of Education’s 1999-2000 school year database. Get its address, find out how many students attend, and learn other school characteristics. Just click on a state, or choose one from the pull down menu beneath the map. Then select a city and click on the name of the school when the list appears.

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    Apple fights Microsoft’s $1 billion ‘gift’ to schools

    In another twist to the controversial settlement proposed by software giant Microsoft Corp. to end private antitrust suits against it, rival Apple Computer Inc. said it will file a supplemental briefing with the federal judge overseeing the hearings Dec. 7.

    Under the settlement, which is intended to resolve claims that Microsoft overcharged consumers for its products, Microsoft would provide $1 billion in software, support, and other aid to the nation’s poorest public schools.

    But in a statement issued Dec. 6, Apple chief executive Steve Jobs said the settlement actually will cost Microsoft less than $1 million.

    “The centerpiece of Microsoft’s proposed $1 billion civil antitrust settlement is their donation of Microsoft software, which they value at $830 million, to our schools. We think people should know that the actual costs to Microsoft for this donated software will likely be under $1 million,” Jobs said.

    “We think a far better settlement is for Microsoft to give their proposed $1 billion—in cash—to an independent foundation, which will provide our most needy schools with the computer technology of their choice.”

    Microsoft’s proposal was submitted to the Federal District Court of Maryland Nov. 20. It is awaiting approval by U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz, who is overseeing the class-action suits. The suits stem from antitrust litigation originally filed by the U.S. Justice Department.

    If accepted, the settlement would provide cash, refurbished computers, software, technical assistance, and training to all qualifying schools—those with 70 percent or more of their students receiving free or reduced-priced lunches, or about 16,000 schools in all, according to Microsoft estimates.

    “It is a settlement that avoids long and costly litigation for the company and … really makes a difference in the lives of millions of schoolchildren in some of the most economically disadvantaged schools in the country,” said Microsoft’s chief executive, Steve Ballmer.

    Critics contend the proposal will only enhance Microsoft’s access to the education market, while providing inadequate funding to meet the poorest schools’ needs.

    Jobs previously blasted the proposed settlement in a Nov. 27 statement.

    “We’re baffled that a settlement imposed against Microsoft for breaking the law should allow, even encourage, them to unfairly make inroads into education—one of the few markets left where they don’t have monopoly power,” he said.

    Jobs isn’t alone in his criticism. Another Microsoft rival, Red Hat Inc., also issued a counterproposal that focuses on how much money Microsoft actually would have to spend if the courts were to accept its settlement offer.

    In its counterproposal, Red Hat—which makes a version of the Linux open-source operating system—offered to give its software to every school district in the nation for free. As a result, the company said, Microsoft could focus on buying hardware, instead of software, for the estimated 16,000 eligible schools.

    “While we applaud Microsoft for raising the idea of helping poorer schools as part of the penalty phase … for monopolistic practices, we do not think that the remedy should be a mechanism by which Microsoft can further extend its monopoly,” said Matthew Szulik, chief executive officer of Red Hat.

    Red Hat said it would give its open-source Red Hat Linux operating system, office applications, and associated capabilities to any school system in the United States at no charge. Red Hat also will offer online support for the software through the Red Hat Network, which currently is a fee-based service.

    Unlike the Microsoft settlement, which is guaranteed for five years, Red Hat’s offer has no time limit, the company said.

    “Initially, I just found it humorous, since you can download Red Hat’s software for free already. However, since the offer includes Red Hat Network [support], this becomes a much more serious offer, as that service does involve some direct costs to Red Hat,” said Kyle Hutson, director of technology for the Rock Creek School District in Kansas.

    Norris Dickard, senior associate of the Benton Foundation, which focuses on digital divide issues, said the counterproposals are “part of a ‘tit for tat’ among competitors.”

    “Competitors … feel that Microsoft is using this deal to get out of numerous lawsuits and extend its monopolistic position by getting [schools] hooked on its software, while looking good in doing so,” Dickard said.

    U.S. District Judge Motz is expected to rule on the proposed settlement in mid-December.

    Links:

    Microsoft Corp.
    http://www.microsoft.com

    Apple Computer Inc.
    http://www.apple.com

    Red Hat Inc.
    http://www.redhat.com

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    Free online mentoring program targets teachers, tech professionals

    TECH CORPS, a national nonprofit organization that mobilizes technology volunteers in schools, has expanded its free online mentoring program to include teachers as well as technology professionals. The new version of its “techs4schools” program now gives educators with varying degrees of technology experience the opportunity to collaborate with information technology (IT) professionals via the web.

    Sponsored by Compaq Computer Corp., the year-old techs4schools program is an online forum in which volunteer IT professionals are placed into teams with teachers and school technology leaders nationwide. Each 10-person team is then encouraged to discuss the use of technology in schools.

    The service is free, but it does require users to register with the program before taking part in discussions. Once registered, educators and technology professionals alike are allowed to ask anyone on their teams about a host of issues, including networking, hardware, video, broadband, the internet, and operating systems.

    The current setup allows group members to ask questions, make suggestions, and discuss brewing technology dilemmas. To provide the greatest number of perspectives possible, teams are composed of school technologists, teachers, and IT professionals with differing areas of expertise.

    What makes techs4schools so valuable, said Karen Smith, executive director of TECH CORPS, is that the latest version of the service provides a truly collaborative environment for educators to learn not only from IT professionals, but also from the suggestions and ideas of their peers.

    “This is not a help desk. This is a collaborative environment where [educators and school technology leaders] can ask their own questions, talk with one another, and receive answers from IT professionals. It’s a group process for the sharing of information. You’re tapping into peoples’ experiences,” she said.

    Smith is optimistic that the forum’s collaborative environment—reinforced by a tight-knit team atmosphere—will encourage both tech-savvy educators and those who are new to technology to participate in the program.

    “Whether their school is on the cutting edge of technology or just beginning, techs4schools allows people to find answers to their questions. Techs4schools is for anyone who is already using technology in the classroom or who wants to be using that technology,” Smith said.

    One way the service aims to attract new, less familiar educators is by offering potential users an opportunity to test the program before registering. A free trial session allows the curious a chance to participate in online discussions before making a commitment. Trial users can compose answers to posted remarks and draft questions for tech professionals. If they find the program to be helpful, educators can choose to register online at no cost.

    “This will really help us to streamline the registration process,” said Deirdre Morrissey, program manager for TECH CORPS. “People can get a feel for what it is all about before registering.”

    According to Smith, a major goal of TECH CORPS has been to put technical support within reach of all schools, regardless of an institution’s resources. She believes techs4schools will play a significant role in reaching this goal. Because the forum is free and entirely web-based, it can reach educators located in remote areas or those who might face overburdened tech-support teams at their schools.

    “We can bring technology volunteers to you no matter where you are located,” said Smith.

    The latest version of techs4schools also offers educators the opportunity to confer with Expert Groups. These are periodical web-based discussions composed of five to 10 certified IT professionals from similar technical fields. According to Smith, the groups are being offered to tackle those broad but more occasional questions that often result from special or emerging technologies.

    “A lot of the questions today are on a very high scale,” said Morrissey. She said the new Expert Groups, which every registered user may participate in, will give educators an opportunity to learn more about the latest technological trends. The first few topics for these sessions will include wireless technologies and accessibility options.

    Despite the benefits that techs4schools offers, “it is only part of the solution,” said Smith. Although it’s important for teachers to have access to online support, she explained, it’s equally important for them to seek out “hands-on” training to deal with the new demand for technology in schools.

    “Techs4schools has proven to be a valuable tool for all schools needing technical assistance. By joining techs4schools, teachers get free, unrestricted access to a variety of technical experts who can help them make technology work better in their classrooms,” said Smith. “Having been a teacher, I can tell you it’s nice to have some communication outside of those four walls.”

    Links:

    Techs4schools
    http://www.techcorps.org/techs4schools/index.html

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    House Republicans block $2.5 billion increase for IDEA

    Some educators and makers of assistive technologies are decrying a successful move by House Republicans to block $2.5 billion in guaranteed funding increases for students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Advocates of the increase said the Republican’s move will hamper schools’ efforts to purchase costly but effective new technologies aimed at helping these students excel in a traditional classroom environment.

    “Assistive technology is very expensive, [and] schools often are dependent on funding from the government or other grant resources to help pay for it,” said Bob Moore, executive director of instructional technology services for the Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kansas.

    The legislators’ actions “disadvantage all students from receiving the educational opportunities to which they have a right,” he added.

    On Nov. 30, House Republicans defeated a proposal that would have guaranteed annual increases of $2.5 billion over the next six years in federal funding for special education.

    Saying they do want to fund the program eventually, GOP lawmakers expressed concern that the money could wind up coming from a program aimed at helping economically disadvantaged children. “Why would we want to pit poor children against disabled children?” said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio.

    Among the large group of disabled-rights advocates gathered outside the Capitol building to show support for fully funding IDEA were a number of parents and special educators.

    Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who cosponsored the funding amendment with Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said he had talked to several parents waiting to get into the hearing. “You think life is tough?” Harkin said. “Go and talk to those people out there.”

    Last spring the Senate approved the special education measure, which would have guaranteed annual $2.5 billion increases for IDEA, specifying that the money be kept safe from the yearly appropriations process.

    It included $8.8 billion next year for special education programs, and total funding would have reached just over $21 billion in 2007, the last year of the guaranteed increases.

    President George W. Bush asked Congress to increase IDEA spending by $1 billion. House appropriators raised that figure to $1.4 billion, but the money is not guaranteed to increase each year.

    Opponents of the guaranteed money said it could lead schools to place more students in special education classes instead of getting them help in regular classrooms.

    Boehner said the debate should wait until next year, when IDEA is due for reauthorization in Congress. He and others also said the system should be overhauled before more money is poured into it. A presidential commission on special education is due to report to Bush in April.

    School systems have long complained that the federal government requires them to educate children with disabilities but doesn’t give them enough money for expensive evaluations, equipment, and services.

    IDEA, enacted in 1975, called for Washington to provide 40 percent of funding for disabled youngsters’ education. This year, the federal government provided about 16 percent, or $6.3 billion. States and school districts share a much larger burden than the original legislation intended.

    “We have failed to meet that guarantee, and we have failed year after year,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

    About 6 million children receive special education funding, which helps in part to pay for school instruction and assistive technologies for students with disabilities.

    In a document about assistive technology published by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), researchers said, “Computer technology—including specialized hardware or software that simulates the human voice reading the computer screen or renders hard-copy output into Braille, designed to help persons with disabilities perform daily tasks—has changed the lives of countless individuals with visual impairments.”

    A number of highly effective technologies are now available to assist blind or visually impaired students, according to the AFB.

    Braille displays, for example, operate by raising and lowering different combinations of pins electronically to produce Braille words that correspond to what appears on a computer screen.

    The displays—which sit on the user’s desk, often next to the standard computer keyboard—can show up to 80 characters that change continuously as the sight-impaired user touches the screen. But they cost between $3,500 and $15,000, depending on the number of characters displayed.

    “Assistive technology is so critical for blind kids—it is truly the difference between accessing the curriculum or not,” said Paul Schroeder, vice president of government relations at AFB. “But obviously this technology is expensive.”

    That’s why many educators say they are disappointed in Congress’ latest action.

    Ken Eastwood, assistant superintendent for instruction and technology at the Oswego City School District in New York, says assistive technologies are not a major expense at his district, but they are a “major headache.”

    “Most of the software and hardware is specialized, and it is very difficult to support it with limited staff,” Eastwood said. “Any funding helps, but if the federal government wants true implementation [of assistive technologies to help students with disabilities], it will not happen without financial support and increased standardization of products and hardware.”

    Links:

    United States Senate
    http://www.senate.gov

    United States House of Representatives
    http://www.house.gov

    American Foundation for the Blind
    http://www.afb.org

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