This program, available through the U.S. Department of Education, aims to help high-need school districts develop, enhance, or expand innovative programs to recruit, train, and/or mentor principals and assistant principals. There is $10 million designated for this program. An estimated 22 grants ranging between $150,000 and $750,000 will be awarded.

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Macromedia’s suite of web-design tools could save schools a bundle

Macromedia Inc. is offering a suite of software tools for building everything from web sites to multimedia applications at an attractive price for schools.

Under the company’s new site-licensing solution for education, schools with more than 500 students can purchase the Macromedia Studio MX suite for only $3,000, while schools with fewer than 500 students pay just $2,000.

The Studio MX package includes the latest versions of Macromedia’s Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks, FreeHand, and ColdFusion programs. The new site-licensing solution for education also includes sample curriculum and lesson plans to help teachers start teaching web design courses or integrate web projects into standard academic subjects. In addition, Macromedia offers an online course on its web site to help train teachers in the use of these tools.

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New web-based early learning program teaches math and reading skills

K-2 Learning MileStones, from Achievement Technologies, is a web-based early learning program that helps instructors teach primary phonics and math while reinforcing word recognition skills.

Teachers can use the program to assess, teach, and review pre-reading and basic math concepts while helping first and second graders build critical thinking skills. Teachers can even create individual instruction plans for students by having each child take a 15-question pre-test from a bank of more than 500 test questions aligned to state objectives.

The software requires minimal reading or keyboarding skills from students but challenges kindergartners and serves as an intervention for struggling students, the company said. It supports special education classes and guides ESL learners with Spanish audio instructions. Audio feedback with an animated character provides students with helpful hints throughout the program.

K-2 Learning Milestones comes with a comprehensive Teacher’s Guide aligned to each state’s standards for language and math. The guide contains printable worksheets for take-home activities, and the software’s printable reports allow teachers to remain accountable with administrators and parents. The program costs $2,495 for a CD-ROM and one-year internet subscription; each additional year is $995 for unlimited use in a single building.

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Check out this automated check-out system from Sagebrush

Students and teachers now can check out library books and other resources by themselves with UCheck, a self-checkout program from Sagebrush Corp. of Minneapolis, Minn. The system aims to save library media specialists valuable time, freeing them to help students and staff members find the information they need.

“Checking out materials to patrons can be a time-consuming task, but it doesn’t have to be,” said Gail Mazure, UCheck product manager. “Using UCheck, librarians can successfully and conveniently let patrons check out their own materials from the library, so the library staff has more time for other library tasks.”

UCheck comes with a password-protected administration component that allows library staff to choose from a variety of methods for how materials will be checked out. Staff members can place restrictions for those who are not allowed to check out their own materials, such as young children. If a restricted person attempts to check out materials, the system will display a message indicating that the checkout process cannot proceed. The program also enables staff members to create, preview, and print status reports.

UCheck integrates seamlessly with Sagebrush’s Athena and Winnebago Spectrum library automation programs, according to the company.

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VTech introduces handheld solutions for students

The VTech XL Series of handheld and notebook-styled electronic devices provides schools with a cost-effective way to introduce young kids to computers while reinforcing reading, writing, and math skills. Each of the four devices in VTech’s XL Series product line is portable and small enough to be stowed in a locker or backpack.

The devices feature a variety of education-specific software applications, including a calculator, unit converter, class scheduler, artwork studio, music creator, and more. They also include access to trusted educational resources such as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and Encyclopedia Britannica.

The ClassMaster Notebook ($149.99), geared toward nine to 12-year-olds, features educational games that let students practice grammar, reading, comprehension, basic geometry, and pre-algebra. The device also lets students do word processing and internet research. Students can upload their projects to a PC to save, eMail, or print. The notebook includes a free, one-year subscription to Encyclopedia Britannica Online.

The SkillStarter Handheld ($39.99) has a touch-screen interface that lets youngsters play games to practice reading and math skills. The SkillStarter Notebook ($59.99) includes a full LCD screen, keyboard, and mouse. In addition to playing educational games, kids can use it to make and record their own music and learn to type.

The MindBooster Notebook ($79.99), for kids ages seven to nine, is designed to promote independent learning and empower kids to apply what they already have learned in school to solve language, math, and logic activities, VTech said.

XL Series devices connect to a standard computer using VTech’s optional vPort Accesory ($19.99).

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Apple expands into server market with Xserve

Apple Computer Inc. on May 14 introduced its first-ever rack-mountable server product, called Xserve. Aimed at environments where Macs are plentiful—such as schools—the device includes software that reportedly can check on the status of a client computer’s hard drive to predict when a failure might occur.

Designed to appeal to technology staff who want a compact, easy-to-use server for file serving, printing, video streaming, database applications, computational clustering, and web and eMail serving, Xserve is based on the UNIX operating system. The idea for an Apple server grew after the Cupertino-based company last year introduced its newest operating system, Mac OS X, which also is based on UNIX.

Xserve features remote management tools to make set-up and maintenance easier, Apple said. System administrators can receive notification of a client computer’s failure via eMail, pager, cell phone, or handheld computer.

Pricing starts at $2,999 for a 1-gigahertz G4 processor model with 256 megabytes of memory. A dual-processor model with 512 MB of memory costs $3,999.

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eSN Analysis: Costs, complications slow SIF’s arrival in schools

Educators agree that sharing student data among multiple software programs without any retyping is an efficient, must-have capability for schools—especially in light of new data-sharing requirements imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act. But a highly touted solution in the works now for nearly four years has yet to be deployed outside of a handful of enterprising school districts.

The Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) is an open-standard specification that lets different K-12 software programs—such as student information systems and library automation software—connect through a central server and share information in a common computer language. But a number of factors have hindered the more widespread adoption of the standard, school technology directors told eSchool News, including its difficulty to implement and the lack of a clear certification process for SIF-compliant products.

Driven by K-12 education technology providers, SIF—a division the Software and Information Industry Association—aims to save educators from repeatedly entering and updating student information. The project’s goal is to enable diverse software applications to interact and share data efficiently, reliably, and securely in real time, regardless of their respective platform.

The initiative has officially been under development since 1999. In August 2000, eSchool News reported that SIF Implementation Specification v1.0 had been released to software developers. In February 2002, a remote demonstration of SIF-compliant products proved the specification works.

Now, 10 new school districts will become showcase sites, bringing the total number of districts to use SIF to 14, according to an announcement made June 17 at the National Educational Computing Conference in San Antonio. But educators are eager to see the solution implemented across the board.

“All of us in the school IT [information technology] community were cautiously hopeful that true interoperability might be realized, but from an outsider’s perspective, it appears that there are still no deliverables,” said Bob Moore, director of IT services for the Blue Valley School District in Kansas.

“It doesn’t seem to be rolling out, and I think that is becoming very frustrating for people,” said Charlie Garten, executive technology director for the Poway Unified School District in California. “It’s a wonderful concept. We really do want it, and we need it. But how do they get it out to us now?”

SIF organizers have advised school districts to ask for SIF-enabled products from their vendors. Many school officials told eSchool News they already use these products, but without interoperability. The reasons for this vary.

Terry Allan, information technology manager for the Vancouver, Wash., Public Schools, said his district already has begun using SIF-enabled products, such as Microsoft’s Class Server and software from HOSTS Learning. But Allan says a lack of wider acceptance of SIF is holding full interoperability back.

“What will it take? Someone to grab the flag, raise it high, and say, ‘Follow me,'” Allan said.

Tia Washington-Davis, IT coordinator for Prince George’s County, Md., Public Schools, blames a lack of marketing.

“School districts throughout the country see the need for viable, interoperable products on the market so we can make intelligent and informed decisions about purchasing,” Washington-Davis said. “Many technology directors stated that they have not seen these types of products available in the marketplace targeting the education sector.”

Garten agrees: “I don’t feel like anyone is really marketing [SIF].”

Terri Fallon, director of marketing for VersaTrans, which makes a school bus planning and routing system that is SIF-enabled, thinks SIF might have been marketed too well.

“Probably our marketing was ahead of the game and got everyone excited. That probably hurt us, because everyone thinks it should be here by now,” Fallon said.

SIF director Tim Magner maintains the progress SIF has had to date is a tremendous success. “Think about how difficult it is to get consensus from your friends about going out to dinner, then think about getting consensus from 120 different companies,” he said.

The technology is commercially available, and there are an increasing number of vendors that support SIF, Magner said: “What schools have to do is decide that they want to use SIF to manage their data and then contact their vendors and ask for SIF-enabled products.”

But there’s more to it than that. A key reason SIF hasn’t caught on more widely is that it’s not simply an out-of-the-box solution.

SIF is a custom solution, Magner said, and its implementation will look different for every school district. Schools must decide which combination of software applications they want to work together.

“There’s not one model for how this works, because there are so many systems that have to come together and there are so many different ways that school districts work,” he said.

The 14 showcase sites will demonstrate different ways SIF can work in a school district. School leaders can look to these sites to find examples that are similar to their own districts for guidance.

School districts must designate a project director who will manage the implementation and decide what data will be shared, what applications will be included, and who will update the data. “You begin to see how it’s much more of a management solution than a technology solution,” Magner said.

Another possible factor in the holdup of SIF is the lack of a clear process for certifying that a vendor’s products are SIF-compliant. Magner said his organization is working on creating a compliance program to give vendors a third-party “seal of approval” that their products work well with other SIF-compliant software.

Such a process would give school purchasers “the confidence that [a vendor’s] products meet the specificifications,” he said.

Yet another holdup is that SIF requires a large investment up front, which really requires community support and buy-in so that adequate funding and staff resources can be devoted to the project.

“It requires that a school district be in a place where they want to implement it,” Magner said. “There is an up-front investment of resources, of time, and possibly infrastructure.”

Garten said his district’s tight budget prevented it from becoming one of the showcase sites, because officials there didn’t have the funds to pay for someone set it up or to buy the necessary hardware and software. “Down the line it’ll give us money back, it’s that initial cost that has caused problems,” Garten said.

SIF takes a long time to implement, too.

“It took several months to get the showcase sites up and running,” Magner said. “It is important to recognize that SIF implementation is like any other large-scale implementation.”

But SIF promises greater efficiency and will pay for itself over time, Magner said: “You make the investment up front, and over the life of the system it pays for itself. There are a lot of things that technology can automate. Once they are automated, we can free up those resources.”

Jim Hirsch, assistant superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas, thinks it won’t be long before SIF begins to reach schools on a more widespread basis. But it will take strong leadership to make that happen, he said.

“The concept is solid, the technology is solid, it’s just a matter of … when a key group of customers—schools—aligns with a key group of vendors to push SIF into the mainstream,” Hirsch said.

Links:

Schools Interoperability Framework
http://www.sifinfo.org

Blue Valley School District
http://www.bluevalleyk12.org

Poway Unified School District
http://powayusd.sdcoe.k12.ca.us

Vancouver Public Schools
http://www.vansd.org

Prince George’s County Public Schools
http://www.pgcps.pg.k12.md.us

Plano Independent School District
http://pisd.edu

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

HOSTS Learning
http://www.hosts.com

VersaTrans Solutions Inc.
http://www.versatrans.com

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