“Colorin Colorado” helps Hispanic parents encourage their children to read

From Reading Rockets, a multimedia initiative from public broadcasting station WETA of Washington, D.C., that provides information on teaching kids to read and helping those who struggle, Colorín Colorado is a new web site designed specifically for Spanish-speaking parents to help their children learn to read and succeed in school. Packed with information, activities, and advice on turning children into confident readers, the site features colorful illustrations from Caldecott Award-winning illustrator David Diaz and entertaining video clips of celebrities such as the late Celia Cruz and author Pat Mora. This bilingual resource is intended for parents of children between infancy and nine years old. Here, parents will find ideas on what to do at home to better prepare their children for success in school. Resources include reading tips and activities, recommended books, and downloadable resources for teachers and librarians to reproduce and distribute to parents in their communities.

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Fla. school district starts coalition to expedite eRate appeals

Frustrated by how long it takes to appeal a rejected eRate application, a Florida school district is forming an eRate coalition that will ask a federal court to force the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to expedite the review of outstanding eRate appeals.

The Palm Beach County School District sent letters Oct. 17 inviting 400 school and library eRate applicants, whose applications are still stuck in the appeals process, to join the coalition.

By the end of this year, Chadbourne & Parke LLP, a New York-based corporate law firm, will file a petition on behalf of the coalition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

“We want to show the court that this is not an isolated problem,” said JulieAnne Rico Allison, chief council for the Palm Beach County School Board. “Hopefully with strength in numbers, our voices will be heard.”

The Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., which oversees the $2.25 billion program denied Palm Beach County’s 2002 application Sept. 9, 2002 because the district did not issue a Request For Proposal or Form 470.

The district appealed the decision with the FCC because, according to SLD’s rules, the district understood that its multi-year contract meant it did not have to re-bid. “We felt we were caught up in a rulemaking that was hyper-technical,” Rico Allison said.

When district officials inquired about the status of the review, they were told the appeal could take up to four years to process, because there were already 400 others in line. “We are 398 of 400 schools on review,” Rico Allison said.

The $3.1 million in eRate discounts at stake represents a third of the district’s annual technology expenditure. “This money is really needed so to be told by a congressionally mandated fund, ‘Oh whoops, on a technicality, you’re not going to get the funds’ was pretty frustrating,” Rico Allison said.

In the mean time, the district has to cover the costs. “If we had access to the revenue source we counted on and relied on we would have the money, but for now we are spending our capital budget,” Rico Allison said. “It cuts into money that could be spent elsewhere.”

Knowing that other school districts are in similar situations also awaiting FCC decisions, the Palm Beach County schools decided to take legal action. “It’s a bureaucratic wall we’ve run into, and we don’t know what else to do,” Rico Allison said.

Hwan Kim, partner and co-chair of the telecommunications and technology practice of Chadbourne & Parke, estimates that the courts would give the FCC no more than a year to process the appeals involved in the petition.

“In a proceeding that involves human welfare or education, the courts require the agency to act quickly,” Kim said. “What will happen in effect by the court ordering this is that the FCC will take notice and hire more staff and get working on it.”

An FCC representative told eSchool News the agency is working as quickly as it can to process all pending applications and had no further comment.

Win Himsworth, president of the consulting group E-Rate Central, agreed there is frustration with how long it takes to appeal decisions of both the FCC and the SLD but said these agencies face far more important issues that affect a greater number of applicants and require immediate attention.

For example, eRate applicants are awaiting clarification from the FCC on the latest eligible services list released Oct. 10, as well as decisions on proposed changes to the discount matrix and the rollover of unused funds.

“I’d much rather see those issues resolved than some of these other issues,” Himsworth said.

The deadline to join the petition is Dec. 17 and costs $10,000 in legal fees. More information is available at the Chadbourne & Parke web site listed below.

Links:

Chadbourne & Parke LLP eRate web site
http://chadbourne.com/usf/usf.html

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

The Schools and Libraries Division
http://www.e-ratecentral.com

E-Rate Central
http://www.e-ratecentral.com

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Educators experiment with child-locator systems

A high-tech satellite locator system originally meant to help parents keep closer tabs on their children is now being used by some educators, enabling them to pinpoint students’ whereabouts on field trips and in other potentially dangerous situations when teachers lead kids outside the safety of the schoolyard.

Called the GPS Locator for Kids, the lockable wristwatch-like device manufactured by California-based Wherify Wireless combines the precision of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology and the reach of a PCS wireless network to track students via the internet within 30 meters of their actual location.

Although company executives originally marketed the devices as providing peace of mind for parents–many of whom have become increasingly protective of their children in the wake of several high-profile child abductions and the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks–at least one school thus far has begun experimenting with the technology on field trips to allay parents’ concerns and ensure that students are returned home safely.

To explore how the devices might work in a group setting, Wherify executives outfitted a teacher at Christ Lutheran School–a private religious institution in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.–with one of its colorful wristband locators while she led a group of 35 eighth-graders on a tour of Washington, D.C.

The device, which works along the same lines as a LoJack for retrieving stolen cars, enabled parents to follow the progress of their children throughout the nation’s capital using a series of online and aerial maps provided by the company as part of its monthly subscription locator service.

Christ Lutheran Principal Jim Neumann said parents were thoroughly intrigued by the idea of tracking their children’s progress from home. “We got a number of calls from parents who were really excited about being able to locate their kids as they stood outside of places like the Jefferson Memorial,” he said.

Though parents had access to the service from their home computers, school officials did not have an opportunity to use the technology, Neumann said. Currently, the school is in talks with Wherify to use the locators for a similar trip later this school year. If all goes as planned, Neumann said he would consider providing training for educators as well as less tech-savvy parents, adding, “If we’re going to use it, we really should be using it to the utmost.”

Still, the experiment left a number of questions unanswered. For instance, while a single locator device enabled worried parents to keep a virtual eye on the group as a whole, the technology as it was used in this instance would have been little help to a student who was lost or somehow became separated from the pack.

So far, Wherify has yet to test the technology on individual students. But according to Bob Stern, the company’s director of corporate communications, that idea is under consideration.

He believes the success of the Lutheran experiment shows there is a place for GPS tracking technology in schools. “It’s opened the door,” he said. “It has substantiated the benefit of this technology and the use of these types of applications.”

Schools in other parts of the world also appear to be considering such devices.

The Associated Press reported earlier this month that a recent kidnapping in the rural Japanese city of Murakami spurred educators there to consider a similar GPS tracking service for more than 2,700 junior high school students. Officials said it was the first such effort in Japan. In the United States, Wherify’s version of the electronic wristband sells for $200–currently too expensive to make it practical schoolwide. The accompanying locator service can be purchased by parents for a monthly subscription of between $20 and $45, depending on the number of times subscribers plan to use the system.

Each Locator for Kids is equipped with a remote locking feature to prevent children from removing the device once they’ve vanished from the caretaker’s sight. Parents and guardians can open and close the lock remotely by calling the company, which then beams a signal across its nationwide PCS network to disable the catch. Each device also comes with a key fob, enabling customers to open the lock manually, Stern said.

In the event that a lock is somehow disabled without consent, the wristband is equipped with a tamper sensor that immediately alerts Wherify personnel to the breach.

Each device has about 60 hours of standby battery life.

The original bracelet locators were designed for students ages 4-12, but Stern said the company also is developing a device for teens and adults, which can be carried on a lanyard. The technology has become popular among a number of families and older adults whose loved ones suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, he said.

Links:

Wherify Wireless
http://www.wherifywireless.com/prod_watches.htm

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Parents sue district alleging wireless health risk

In what experts believe is the first suit of its kind, some Illinois parents have filed a class-action lawsuit against their local school district over the harmful effects allegedly caused by the district’s wireless network.

In the suit, the parents claim that Oak Park Elementary School District 97 installed a wireless local area network in classrooms despite what they call “a substantial body of evidence” that finds exposure to high-frequency electromagnetic radiation is especially harmful to children.

The plaintiff’s lawyers “have collected more than 400 scientific articles, summaries, and references outlining the health risks from low-intensity radio frequency radiation exposure,” the complaint said.

It also said the district refused to invite expert witnesses to explain the available research.

Gail Crantz, a spokeswoman for Oak Park Elementary School District 97, said the complaint is “curious” because the district had examined the safety of wireless networks over a two-year period.

“We’ve had several witnesses testify. They’ve brought in experts, and we’ve brought in experts,” Crantz said. “The board has determined that the use of wireless technologies is safe.”

Part of the problem, Crantz said, is that not many studies about the safety of wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) networks exist. The majority of wireless research pertains to cell phone frequencies, which are 30 times more powerful than Wi-Fi frequencies.

Denis Eaton, chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance, agrees. “There have been no specific studies on Wi-Fi,” Eaton said. “If you have some or are aware of some, we’d like to know about them.”

The Wi-Fi Alliance says wireless networks are safe because every Wi-Fi product on the market has been tested and certified by the Federal Communications Commission.

“The risk for Wi-Fi is much lower than the risk for microwave ovens or anything else that people are exposed to on a daily basis,” he said.

Major reports have found no ill effect from cell phones or cordless phones, Eaton said–and compared with Wi-Fi, these items have a higher frequency and are held in closer proximity to the body. “You don’t hold a laptop right up next to your head. It’s usually on your desk,” he explained.

Other school districts that have installed wireless networks have found no evidence of harmful effects.

“No child is in an environment with solid broadcasts for a long time. At most, the child has the use of a laptop for 30 minutes to 45 minutes per day,” said Sandra Becker, director of technology at the Governor Mifflin School District in Pennsylvania.

“Those who manage technology, and parents who send their children to our nation’s schools, face far more dangerous hazards–such as declining budgets and staffing, aimless leadership, and inflammatory technophobic fear-mongering–than alleged radiation damage from laptop computers,” said Rick Bauer, chief information officer for the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa.

But parents’ concerns should be taken seriously, said most of those who spoke with eSchool News. “Schools need to do their homework and be well informed about the implementation of any new technology, Wi-Fi included,” said Bob Moore, executive director of information technology at the Blue Valley Unified School District in Kansas.

The Oak Park district has not stopped using its wireless technology, although the plaintiffs have requested that the wireless network be shut down until the district proves it poses no health or safety risk.

The complaint by parents was filed Sept. 26 in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill. A hearing before Judge Nancy Arnold is scheduled for February.

Links:

Complaint
http://wifinetnews.com/archives/illinoislawsuit.pdf/illinoislawsuit.pdf

Oak Park Elementary School District 97
http://www.op97.k12.il.us

Wi-Fi Alliance
http://www.weca.net

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Budget crunch forces schools to reconsider laptop program

At least eight Michigan school districts are questioning whether constricting budgets might force them to pass on an ambitious, $39 million effort to put a laptop computer in the hands of every sixth-grader across the state. Despite the outcry, however, Gov. Jennifer Granholm continues to back the program.

Called Freedom to Learn, the one-to-one computing initiative is seen by many as the next step toward putting a laptop into the hands of every K-12 student throughout the state.

But The Detroit News reported Oct. 6 that officials in some of the metro area’s largest districts–including Detroit, Dearborn, Livonia, Plymouth, Southfield, Warren Consolidated, and Armada–are leery of hidden costs associated with maintaining the machines and fear the program will not last more than a year. eSchool News has learned that an eighth Michigan district–the Saginaw Public Schools–is also apprehensive about the program.

State officials estimate it will cost schools approximately $25 per student to participate in the program, but some educators contend that figure falls well short of the actual price.

Ken Siver, a spokesman for the Southfield Public Schools–a district serving 10,300 students and more than 1,000 sixth graders–criticized legislators for not providing enough funding to cover the cost of outfitting the district’s older buildings with wireless internet access and other expenditures, including the maintenance and security of such machines.

Siver estimates the seven buildings serving sixth-graders in Southfield would have to spend an average of $80,000 apiece on infrastructure alone.

“We didn’t want to come across as negative,” he said. “On the surface, the idea sounds great. But it’s a gift that’s not really a gift.”

Maintenance of the laptops is another issue.

Although $25 a head might be enough to put a computer in the hands of every sixth grader, it will cost much more than that to fully unlock the potential of the state’s investment, Siver predicts.

He expects schools will be forced to spend thousands of dollars on virus upgrades, software licensing, insurance for lost or stolen machines, and additional printing services, among other things. “The [computers] are not free,” he said. “Local districts really have been sort of blindsided by this.”

According to Siver, the legislature has put school districts in the difficult position of potentially disappointing students and parents who’ve already caught wind of the program and will be expecting the laptops come January.

But for Southfield, as with a number of districts across the state, the thought of spending even more money on technology raises concerns among school officials, who worry whether a recent rash of state-aid cuts will bleed further into education spending.

Budgets being what they are, schools can’t afford the level of commitment this type of one-to-one computing initiative demands, Siver said –at least not right now. “I just don’t think it was very well thought out,” he concluded.

After discussing his concerns in a board meeting last week, school officials in Southfield decided to delay their decision until the state unveils its final plan. Siver said Southfield is very interested in what other districts will do. But so far, few have made any public decision.

Educators in the Saginaw Public Schools–a 12,000 student district that also serves more than 1,000 sixth graders–said they, too, were worried about the prospect of unforeseen costs related to the program.

“We’re concerned that the infrastructure costs are not being considered by the state,” said Tony Gordon, supervisor of technology for the district.

Gordon, who used an online template provided by the Travis Bay Area Intermediate School District to calculate the price of Freedom to Learn in Saginaw, estimates participating schools there would spend in excess of $200,000 in the first year alone. By the third year, he said, that figure could climb to more than $1 million.

Technology leaders also are leery of a state contract that would limit them to a single-vendor solution, which would require a number of schools to weigh the costs of jumping from a PC-based to an Apple-based platform or vice versa.

Saginaw, for example, currently runs on an entirely Windows-based platform. That means if the state restricted its contract to, say, Apple iBook devices, every school in the district would have to convert its applications to work with Apple technology. “It would add a whole other area of complexity and costs,” Gordon noted.

Like many of the districts across Michigan, he said Saginaw will wait to make a decision until state officials release the final proposal. “But I’ve got a feeling we won’t jump on this,” he concluded. “There are significant hidden costs under the current [request for proposals].”

The governor’s office said it plans to forge ahead with the program, regardless of whether every school across the state supports it.

“It’s a voluntary program. If people choose not to participate, then we certainly understand,” said Granholm’s press secretary, Liz Boyd. She expects more schools will express an interest after the state releases its final guidelines, which are due in early November.

So far, state officials said they’re not sure how many schools will sign on.

“The proposal isn’t officially out there yet,” said Martin Ackley, public information officer for the state department of education. “We’ll have to wait and see whether school districts will participate or not.”

Proponents of the program, piloted last year in 13 districts throughout the state, told eSchool News in August that the laptops were well worth it.

At the Malcolm X Academy, a public K-8 institution in Detroit, educators used the pilot money to purchase an Apple iBook laptop with a high-speed processor for each of the school’s 65 sixth-graders.

In conjunction with a completely wireless network, which gives students instant access to the internet from anywhere on campus, school computer coordinator Jeffrey Robinson said officials used the machines to create a fully ubiquitous computing environment. Students now use the technology in class and at home to do assignments, conduct online research, and create multimedia projects.

“The program is going extremely well,” Robinson told reporters. “We have designed a curriculum where the technology is used now in almost every class.”

The students have free access to the internet from anywhere on campus, but the program lacked funding sufficient to procure wireless access from home, Robinson said. Instead, the computers are equipped with 56K modems that allow dial-up access from home.

Even in its infancy, Michigan’s program bears a striking resemblance to the progressive rollout of other one-to-one computing initiatives around the country.

In Maine, for example, former Gov. Angus King left his legacy in the form of a $30 million effort to provide laptops to all seventh and eighth graders across the state. That program delivered more than 17,000 Apple iBook computers to students last school year and is expected to yield another 16,000 machines statewide this fall.

So far, the program appears to be having a significant impact. A report released in May by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute, which surveyed more than 8,000 students, 731 teachers, 154 principals, and 40 superintendents, said the laptops have enhanced the quality of classroom activities and have made learning more fun, according to students.

In Henrico County, Va., officials invested more than $18 million to deploy more than 23,000 wireless laptop computers to middle and high school students throughout the district. That initiative has met with similar approval from educators, who say the technology is well positioned to meet the evolving needs of today’s more digital learners.

In Michigan, students aren’t the only ones tapping into the wireless computing movement. The Michigan Gates Foundation Project recently helped spearhead a $6 million initiative called Leading the Future, which put a Palm 505 handheld computer into the hands of 4,000 school superintendents and principals so they could use real-time data to make better decisions.

And two years ago, nearly all of Michigan’s teachers received laptop computers through a $110 million initiative led by former Gov. John Engler, called the Teacher Technology Initiative. At the time, the initiative was to provide more than 91,000 computers for educators, the largest such state program of its kind.

Links:

Gov. Granholm’s web page
http://www.michigan.gov/gov

Michigan Department of Education
http://www.mde.state.mi.us

Travis Bay Area Intermediate School District spreadsheet
http://www.tbaisd.k12.mi.us/administration/Admin%20PDFs/Freedom%20to%20learn%20initiative%201.xls

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Win a safer playground for your elementary school

Win up to 100 cubic yards of Kids Karpet for your school’s play area. Kids Karpet is an engineered wood fiber playground surfacing. The prize, worth $2,000, will cover an area of approximately 2,000 square feet or a play area approximately 45 feet by 45 feet. Winners will be judged based on an essay of 200 words or less describing the school’s need for a Kids Karpet donation, and why Kids Karpet would be the best surfacing for their play area.

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More than $12,000 in cash and prizes for top school journalism

Through the 2004 National Student Publishing Awards, TIME and TIME FOR KIDS news magazines recognize excellence in student-written and student-produced magazines and newspapers. Awards will be presented to national and regional winners in three categories: elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. Each national winner will receive $2,000 in cash for the school, $500 in classroom products, an award for the school, and a workshop by a TIME or TIME FOR KIDS editor. In addition, each student participant in the published entry will receive certificates of recognition. Twelve regional winners will receive $250 in classroom products, an award for the school, and recognition certificates for each student participant in the published entry.

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$10 million in cash, PCs, and technology to enhance education

HP’s Technology for Teaching Grant initiative supports innovative and effective uses of technology in classrooms so that students may reach their full potential, particularly in math, science, and engineering. Schools in the United States from kindergarten through university level are eligible to apply. HP will award a total of $4.5 million in cash and equipment to teams of five teachers from 150 K-12 public schools across the country. The award package, valued at approximately $35,000 for each school team, will include five HP Tablet PCs, five HP multimedia projectors, HP help desk support for one year, a $500 stipend per teacher, and customized professional development opportunities for faculty to support the use of technology in their teaching. For two- and four-year colleges and universities in the United States, HP will award a total of $5.5 million in cash and equipment to 40 schools. The award package for each school selected will include an HP product package valued at approximately $50,000, a faculty stipend of $7,500 to work on the project integration, and one year of access to HP Higher Education Help Desk support.

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Win a digital camera or web authoring software for accessible web site

The Mid-Atlantic Consortium on Accessible Information Technology helps schools make information technology (including web pages) accessible to all students, faculty, and employees so that everyone can access information, share work, communicate, and take advantage of distance learning options. The purpose of this contest is to increase awareness of the importance of web access, and to increase the interest of school districts in improving the accessibility of their web sites. Judges will evaluate sites on the basis of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Priority 1 Checkpoints and Section 508 Web Standards. The home page of each site and three links will be judged. K-12 schools in Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania are eligible to apply.

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$20,000 to buy art supplies, software, and resources

The National Education Association (NEA) Fine Arts grants are awarded to fine arts teachers, through local NEA affiliates, to enable them to create and implement fine arts programs that promote learning among students at risk of school failure. Programs must address the arts, which includes painting, sculpture, photography, music, theater, dance, design, media, or folk arts. NEA will award 10 grants of $2,000 each. Funds may be used to pay for resource materials, supplies, equipment, transportation, software, and/or professional fees.

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