$10,000 in discounts for parent-teacher communication tools

MainBrain Inc., which makes web-based software to improve parent-teacher communication, is giving grants of more than $10,000 to select schools in North Carolina so they can acquire the company’s software at cost. The company’s flagship product, MainBrain School, provides parents with access to information about the school, classes, and grades. The software reportedly can send alerts about school closings, grades, absences, or upcoming special events directly to a parent’s eMail account or cell phone; allow parents to fill out and return permission slips online; easily update and manage the school’s home page with current events and information; and enable users to create web pages for classes, sports, clubs, and other activities simply by pointing and clicking, putting everything from cafeteria schedules to homework assignments online.

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Schools eye Aug. 1 deadline for registering foreign students with feds

Aug. 1 marked the deadline for universities and certain high schools to register their foreign students in a new national anti-terrorism database. (See “New student tracking system launched, despite concerns”; http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4254)

Federal officials say students who are not registered by the deadline still will be able to verify their status with Homeland Security Department staff stationed at major airports—but only this year.

Michael Garcia, acting director of the Bureau of Customs and Immigration Enforcement, said some students who aren’t registered by the Aug. 1 deadline could be stopped at ports of entry, but the agency wants to avoid denying entry to legitimate students.

“We don’t want to put up barriers to legitimate, bona fide students,” Garcia said. “At the same time, we have an obligation to make sure they are who they say they are.”

He said the agency will set up a 24-hour command center that will operate seven days a week to help verify students’ status or deal with other problems. Agency staff will be stationed at airports in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, Detroit, Atlanta, and Washington, facilities through which 70 percent of all foreign students enter the country.

Garcia said the agency will follow up with students who are granted entry but are not in the system.

All schools with foreign students—including high schools with foreign exchange students—must have entered the names and other identifying information of those students in the database created after the Sept. 11 attacks to track foreign students.

Although 5,937 educational institutions had complied by July 28, officials said 600 schools have yet to file their information. Many that have yet to file are religious, trade, and secondary schools, officials said.

Congress revived the Student Exchange and Information System, or SEVIS, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The system was supposed to be running at the start of the year, but software glitches and other problems led to launch delays. It officially debuted Feb. 15.

Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers had entered the U.S. legally on travel visas. Three were admitted with business visas and one on a student visa.

The driver of the van loaded with explosives in the first World Trade Center bombing had overstayed a student visa. “There was never any check [on the bomber], and there was no system in place to do that. This system addresses those failings, failings that had a devastating effect,” Garcia said.

Thus far, slightly more than 1 million records have been entered into SEVIS. A list of 77,000 schools allowed to enroll foreign students has been whittled to approximately 7,000 as officials have begun eliminating those out of business or without foreign students, Garcia said.

Garcia said the efforts to help students at airports are a one-time-only accommodation. “This won’t be the regular way of doing business for a couple of schools that don’t have their business in order,” he said.

Some school officials fear that students could be arrested or deported because their names did not make it into the system or the information in the database was inaccurate.

Although most schools will make the Aug. 1 deadline, few will be 100 percent in compliance, said Victor Johnson, executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we have at least one student in each school who didn’t make it in on time,” he said.

Johnson said that although the system has improved, it continues to have problems, such as erasing data or failing to relay data to the State Department, which issues visas.

Links:

Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement
http://www.bice.immigration.gov

NAFSA
http://www.nafsa.org

SEVIS Log In Page
https://egov.immigration.gov/sevis/

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Free tote bags filled with school supplies for teachers

To honor teachers across the country for their hard work, Staples is giving away free tote bags filled with school supplies during its Teacher Appreciation Days this August. Every Staples store will host this celebration of teachers on one of three Saturdays in August—the 2nd, 16th, or 23rd. The Teacher Appreciation Days gift bag is stocked with pencils, pens, sticky notes, a pencil box, stickers, paper clips, and numerous other giveaways. All teachers with a valid teacher identification are invited to take advantage of the free gift. Dates and details are available on the program’s web site.

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Software, training, and prizes for web sites powered by Macromedia

The Macromedia 2003 Back to School Student Contest encourages and recognizes the creators of innovative web sites and applications built with Macromedia products. Winners across multiple categories–including higher education, K-12, students, and eLearning–will receive software, grants, prizes, or free training, plus the opportunity to be showcased by Macromedia. No purchase is required to enter the program. Students compete against their peers and vote for their favorites in December.

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Study: Web use may boost student achievement

Does the internet make kids smarter? A July 28 report from a team of researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) contends that children who use the internet perform better on standardized tests and generally achieve higher grade-point averages than their less web-savvy peers.

The 16-month HomeNetToo project—funded with $1.5 million in National Science Foundation grant monies—surveyed 140 school-age children and 120 adults from predominantly low-income households and was intended to demonstrate how low-income families use the internet at home. In particular, researchers were interested in uncovering what motivates children to use the internet and how web use, in general, affects their lives.

“HomeNetToo children who spent more time online using the web performed better in school after one year than those who spent less time online,” said principal investigator Linda Jackson. “It appears that the text-based nature of most web pages is causing children to read more, resulting in improvements in grade-point averages and performance on standardized tests of reading achievement.”

According to researchers, children who participated in the program—which provided computers and internet access to 90 low-income families in the Lansing, Mich., area—saw their grade-point averages increase from 2.0 to 2.2 or higher and, in many cases, improved their scores on standardized reading assessments.

“Spending time online means spending time reading,” said Jackson, who also is a professor of psychology at the university. “When you’re on the web, you have to read a lot of text.”

Researchers say the children, who averaged 13 years of age, spent most of their time online conducting school-related research, or pursuing hobbies and other personal interests. Project team members provided technical support for participants and made home visits to help install the technology and observe its use.

Students who took part in the program said they benefited from their newfound access to computer technology.

“I thought that the HomeNetToo project was great because it gave me a chance to stay home more with my family instead of going to the library every day. Also, it gave me extra time to work on my computer skills,” said one child participant. “Overall, it was wonderful.”

“I think it’s cool to get kids to learn more about the internet,” reported another. The study also helps dispel the myth that children and adults who spend a great deal of time online are more apt to become social dropouts.

“We found no evidence that using the internet at home reduces social contacts or undermines communication with family or friends,” said Jackson. “Adult participants who used the internet more were no more likely to communicate less with family and friends, participate in social groups, become depressed, or experience hassles or stress [owing] to time conflicts than those who used it less, or not at all.”

Other questions addressed during the three-year project concerned the effects of visual interfaces on learning. The researchers examined how the design of web pages makes it easier or more difficult for users to understand and remember their content. The study focused on health-related information, and in particular on high blood pressure, which is a serious problem in the African-American community.

Working in conjunction with MSU’s Media Interface and Networking Design (MIND) Laboratory, Jackson and her band of researchers created interfaces adapted to users’ preferred mode of processing information. Experiments were used to examine whether learning information about high blood pressure is easier with user-adapted interfaces than with the standard “magazine-style” web page interface.

“Culturally adapted interfaces resulted in more favorable attitudes than the typical magazine-style interface,” said Frank Biocca, Ameritech professor of telecommunication at MSU and director of the MIND Lab. “Learning was enhanced when interface adaptation matched the users’ cognitive style.”

An additional 160 African-American adults were recruited at churches and community centers in Detroit to participate in the interface design experiments.

At least one educator said he wasn’t surprised by the study’s findings.

“I think the report quantifies what many of us have suspected anecdotally for some time,” said Rick Bauer, chief information officer at The Hill School in Pottstown, Pa. “The internet is the preferred medium for information for this digital generation.”

Links:

HomeNetToo project
http://www.homenettoo.org

Michigan State University
http://www.msu.edu

Media Interface and Networking Design laboratory
http://www.mindlab.msu.edu

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Discounts of up to 20 percent on iAssessment software

iAssessment LLC is giving educators 10- to 20-percent discounts off the suggested retail price of all qualifying iAssessment software products purchased before September 30, 2003. iAssessment is dedicated to improving K-12 pedagogy through the integration and use of technology in the classroom. iAssessment Grants are available to all public, independent, or private K-12 organizations in the United States. The company’s Professional Development Solution combines online assessment, data collection, diagnostic, and reporting features. Its smartPortal product integrates disparate databases such as student information systems, course management systems, and reporting applications together with legacy systems. smartPortal uses open architecture to permit cross-application compatibility with academically or commercially developed third-party applications.

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Coaches grab handheld computers to track stats

When high school baseball coach Jeff Barker wants to know how to defend a certain hitter, he just checks his scorebook.

When he wants to know how many pitches his hurler has thrown, he checks the scorebook.

When he wants to know how successful his batter has been throughout the season when the count is 1-2 and a right-handed pitcher throws a curveball low and outside on a partly cloudy day … you get the idea.

Scorebooks are changing. The pencil-and-paper system of tracking a game’s activity is yielding to technology, and baseball managers are now embracing handheld computers that can hold an abundance of information.

"They’re amazing," said Barker, who took over the helm this season at Hamshire-Fannett High School in Texas and also had the school purchase a Palm Pilot through the baseball budget.

"Last year, I spent about six hours a week doing stats," he said. "This gives you a professional box score and a scoresheet after the game. You can review it and make sure it’s correct while the game is fresh in your mind. Then you can get statistics, scouting reports, charts."

The software for handheld computers interacts with a traditional PC to track entire statistics for the season.

The computers are changing the face of baseball and softball on many levels. Port Neches, Texas, Little League All-Stars manager Robert Sangster used one during the District 32 tournament recently. Beaumont Blast softball scorekeeper Steve Walker of Evadale, Texas, had one on hand during the state tournament in mid-July.

"You can keep a lot more stats with [a handheld computer]," said Walker, who said the team has been using one for more than four years. "You can track how many strikes they have, how many balls they pitched, the location of where the ball went when it was hit. It’s a lot quicker and a lot easier to access. And you can download it to your desktop. You can get all the stats you could ever want from it."

Managers can use the information to help their own players. For example, Barker said Hamshire-Fannett printed hitting spray charts for opposing lineups to consult during the game. Walker said he relays information on opponents’ hitting tendencies to his first baseman, who then tells her Blast teammates how to position themselves.

"One thing we found with it," Barker said, "is that one of our players … was hitting .520 when he put the ball in play up the middle, and when he tried to pull it, he did a lot worse."

Barker and his staff were able to work with the player, who hit nearly .400 for the season.

One of the most important functions of the handheld computer is keeping track of the pitch count.

"Last year, I had one of these handheld clickers like the big leagues, and I did it myself," Barker said. "Sometimes some pitches would go by and I’d be thinking about something else and forget to click them, so it wasn’t an accurate count."

The team’s scorekeeper can punch in each pitch–including foul balls–as part of the scoring, and the computer adds the numbers.

"I can just ask our scorekeeper for a [pitch count]," Barker said. "We’re able to make decisions to keep our pitchers safe."

Walker said he’s spoiled by the handheld computer scoring. "Some people go back to pencil and paper," he said, "but after doing this we can’t go back to it."

Links:

Hamshire-Fannett Independent School District
http://www.hfisd.net/index2.htm

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Arizona OKs five new virtual academies in extended charter-school program

Education leaders in Arizona have approved the creation of five virtual schools as part of a pilot program that allows elementary school children to attend class through a home computer.

Members of the State Board for Charter Schools selected the five schools from a field of 19 candidates.

“We’ve been working on this for two years,” said Damian Creamer. Creamer runs the Primavera Technical Learning Center in Chandler, Ariz., which was among the schools to receive board approval on July 21 to launch internet learning. “We have a desire to bring this to a much greater population than just students in Chandler,” he said.

Four other schools already offer electronic learning, including Sequoia Choice, an electronic charter school, and the Arizona public school districts of Deer Valley and Mesa.

The virtual schools will offer internet-based courses in which children log on from home, get passwords, eMail accounts, and class assignments via computer.

Students in kindergarten through 12th grade can attend the online schools as long as they have not been home-schooled immediately before enrolling.

There are no district boundaries, and students from any region can enroll in any of the online schools. Some of the charter academies require that students have a home computer and an internet connection. Proponents say that the creation of the virtual schools will provide educational opportunities to youth in rural areas.

To ensure that students are matching the skills of their traditionally schooled peers, Arizona law requires that pupils in virtual schools take all standardized tests. The schools themselves must also document the educational progress of their students or face a “failing” label and possible closure.

The state’s pilot program is limited to 14 electronic schools offering education from kindergarten through 12th grade for the current academic year. The project was to have ended in June, but advocates successfully lobbied state lawmakers to allow the project to continue for another year.

According to the Arizona Republic newspaper, the limited slots created a frenzy among charter operators who wanted a chance to profit from the latest education experiment in the country. Proponents say online schooling will reach children who have struggled in traditional schools, while critics say there is no research on the real costs of cyberschools. Arizona Virtual Academy is partnering with K12 Inc., an online program developed by former Secretary of Education William Bennett. Originally, K12 Inc. targeted home-schooled children and charged tuition. But now K12 Inc. is joining with charter schools across the country that can offer the program free because taxpayers pick up the bill.

Here are the newly approved virtual schools: Humanities and Sciences High School; Phoenix Special Programs and Academies; Pinnacle Education Inc.; Primavera Technical Learning Center; and Sierra Vista Charter Schools Inc.

Links:

Arizona State Board for Charter Schools
http://www.asbcs.state.az.us/asbcs/

Arizona Department of Education
http://www.ade.state.az.us/

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The Smithsonian’s educational web site offers its content and resources online

The Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies has created a free educational web site for students, educators, and families based on the Smithsonian Institution’s content. The educator section offers lesson plans, virtual field trip information, professional development, and more, all sorted by grade level and subject area. The student area features interactive content modules, called IdeaLabs, on topics such as United States presidents or walking on the moon.

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$3,000 for innovative science teaching

Ohaus Corp., which makes balances for the education, laboratory, and industrial markets, is accepting entries for the 2004 Gustav Ohaus Award for Innovations in Science Teaching. For 34 years, the annual Gustav Ohaus Award program has recognized educators whose instructional methods or learning activities have the potential to improve science teaching at the elementary, middle, high school, and college levels. This year’s competition, administered for Ohaus by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), offers a prize totaling $3,000 for the winner. The winner will receive $1,500 toward travel to attend the 2004 NSTA National Convention this April in Atlanta, where an additional $1,500 will be presented. The Gustav Ohaus Award program recognizes innovations across a broad range of categories, including—but not limited to—new curriculum design, instructional methods, or techniques; unique organization or administrative patterns; and new approaches to laboratory activities or other enhanced learning activities for students. The program is open to educators from all grade levels, kindergarten through college, who teach in the United States or Canada. Entries will be judged on five criteria: originality, utilization, benefits, consistency, and safety. All entrants are required to complete the official application form and provide a 250-word abstract description of the program being entered into the competition, along with supporting materials of no more than five pages.

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