Educators from 20 exemplary schools across the country–many of which employ technology in innovative ways to prepare students for 21st-century challenges–returned home to their districts this week with a combined $5 million in cash, equipment, and other prizes awarded to them during the annual Intel Corp. and Scholastic Inc. “Schools of Distinction” Awards Gala in Washington, D.C.

“It kind of reminds me a little of the Academy Awards,” said Terry Smithson, education strategist for Intel Corp. and co-emcee of the event, as he surveyed the smartly dressed crowd of educators, businesspeople, and politicians assembled at the historic Renaissance Mayflower Hotel on Oct. 6 to congratulate the winning schools.

Though there were no paparazzi waiting outside on the street, for the honored educators–many of whom receive little credit for the good work they do–the glitzy, black-tie affair was a long-overdue pat on the back for a job well done.

Chosen from a pool of 3,000 applicants from all over the nation, the 2005 winners were honored for employing bold and sometimes controversial learning strategies–all while managing to boost state test scores and better prepare learners for the challenges of the global economy.

From an outdoor school in Hawaii that sits atop a live volcano, to a vocational high school in Neptune, N.J., that encourages aspiring doctors and nurses to participate in virtual surgeries and make rounds at local hospitals, to a K-5 institution in Seattle that requires every student to learn a second language, this year’s winners were recognized not only for building innovative programs, but for uniting students, teachers, parents, and the community at large toward a common goal: creating a better future for the nation’s students.

“These schools have found innovative ways to achieve excellence in education,” said Brenda Musilli, director of education for Intel. “From a highly diverse set of circumstances, you find a common desire and ability to tackle challenges head on, continuously improve, and plan for the future. We hope these programs will inspire others.”

Scholastic Education president Margery Mayer and Intel Corp. Chairman Craig Barrett pose with Schools of Distinction award winners from John Stanford International School in Seattle. Pictured left to right are Scholastic’s Mayer, Nani Castor-Peck, teacher, Karen Kodama, principal, Raj Manhas, superintendent, Hiromi Pingry, teacher, and Barrett. (Photo courtesy of Intel Corp.)
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Two schools–John Stanford International School (JSIS) in Seattle and The Academy of Allied Health and Science in Neptune, N.J.–took home highly coveted “Best of the Best” honors at this year’s event. The distinction landed each winner $25,000 in grant money, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in hardware, software, training services, and other prizes from program partners.

When it comes to the global economy, perhaps nowhere are students more readily equipped to deal with the cross-section of culture and language that pervades the business world than at JSIS in Seattle.

With a diverse student population that is 41 percent white, 30 percent Hispanic, 21 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and 7 percent African-American, this unique northwestern elementary school is dedicated to exposing its students–many of whom speak English as a second language–to a culturally diverse, increasingly bilingual society.

In the words of Principal Karen Kodama, “There’s a global focus to everything.”

Not only are JSIS students required to study a second language–either English, Spanish, or Japanese, depending on what their first language is–but teachers also use webcasts, videoconferencing, and other technologies to connect students to their counterparts in other parts of the world. Administrators even organize exchange programs that give students–and their parents–a chance to visit other countries, meet their international study partners, and learn about different cultures firsthand.

Kodama, who believes that understanding culture is an important first step in understanding language, says she encourages her teachers to speak to their students in a foreign language. In many cases, she says, whole classes are conducted entirely in a language other than English.

In fact, JSIS students spend half of the academic day learning math, science, and culture in their assigned foreign language. They spend the other half of the day focusing on reading, writing, and social studies in English. According to Kodama, JSIS students consistently score above district standards in reading and math, despite that many of these classes are taught in either Spanish or Japanese–not English. It’s an achievement Kodama and her staff credit to the high-order thinking and problem-solving skills inherent in learning a second language.

Of course, securing all the resources required for a full-scale international program isn’t easy. Knowing how difficult the task would be, JSIS forged a partnership with the University of Washington Language Learning Center to provide curriculum development support for the mandatory Spanish or Japanese language-immersion program, as well as bilingual student interns, tutors, and guidance from the International Faculty Council.

For the JSIS community, the highlight of the year comes during the International Business Breakfast, where students showcase their talents for local business leaders, parents, and other stakeholders who have a vested interest in seeing the program succeed.

At the Academy of Allied Health and Science, part of the Monmouth County Vocational School District in Neptune, N.J., aspiring medical students use videoconferencing tools to observe a surgeon as he conducts open-heart surgery and pose questions to doctors and patients as they make the rounds at a local hospital.

“We don’t have a longer school day,” said Principal Robert Cancro of his school’s unorthodox program, “but we pack a lot more into it.”

Through a partnership with the local University Medical Center, sophomores complete a six-week rotation in various health departments, while juniors complete grant applications and execute local community service projects. Administrators say affiliations with colleges enable students to earn up to 24 college credits in health and biology through coursework offered at the high school.

Other insights into health-related careers come from students’ participation in community and work programs that take them into a school for children with cerebral palsy and a senior citizens home, for example.

A technological marvel, the school contains 125 desktop computers and 78 laptops–not bad for an institution with just 279 students. Other state-of-the-art features include five individual science labs, a media arts center, and a fitness lab for those students interested in pursuing careers in physical therapy or health. Plus, every classroom has access to the school’s video-retrieval system for training and professional development, as well as a wide-area network with high-speed internet connectivity.

In a meeting with an eSchool News reporter, representatives from both schools talked about what it means to be a “School of Distinction” and said they hoped their successes would serve as a catalyst for other schools to begin to meet the challenges of a global society.

And flashy technology alone won’t cut it, they say.

While it’s important to think outside the box, the winners cautioned that educators also must realize no large-scale reform effort can succeed without the support of administrators, staff, and the community at large.

Educators from both schools said it’s important to empower students to take control of their own education. Teachers can serve as good shepherds, they said, but the only way to prepare students for the increasingly competitive 21st century is to equip them with the skills necessary to begin making tough decisions on their own–no matter what path they choose.

Members from both schools said they intend to use their prize money to continue building on the strength of their programs by investing in additional professional development resources and videoconferencing tools, among other potential projects.

“The winning schools are to be commended for their academic success and for producing students with a strong sense of public service,” said Intel Chairman Craig Barrett, who was on hand to help give out the awards.

Barrett, like Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, has been an outspoken voice for education reform in recent years, using evidence of declining graduation rates and the continued outsourcing of high-tech jobs overseas to make a case for widespread reform in the nation’s schools.

“Education can be transformed when government, educators, community, and industry work together to achieve a common goal,” he said. “By recognizing these excellent institutions, we hope other schools and classrooms will begin their own journey of transformation.”

“These outstanding schools demonstrate the importance of collaboration in expanding the educational resources and experiences that we can offer school children,” said Francie Alexander, chief academic officer for Scholastic. “This year’s ‘Best of the Best’ winners serve as excellent examples of how business and communities can work with schools to enhance academic opportunities for tomorrow’s leaders.”

But, as executives from both companies pointed out, picking just two schools worthy of the coveted “Best of the Best” distinction wasn’t easy.

With so many programs to choose from, even the winners seemed in awe of their competition.

“Everyone here really deserves this award,” said Tim McCorkell, assistant superintendent for the Monmouth County Vocational School District, in accepting the award for Allied Health.

In all, 20 K-12 schools received 2005 Schools of Distinction awards (for a complete list of the winners, click here). Two winners–one elementary and one secondary school–were selected in each of 10 different categories: Academic Achievement, External Collaboration, Leadership Excellence, Literacy Achievement, Mathematics Achievement, Professional Development Excellence, Science Achievement, Internal Teamwork, Technology Excellence, and Technology Innovation.

Educators at the Lee Academy of World Studies and Technology–a large K-5 school in Tampa, Fla., that won a Technology Excellence Award–were honored for creating an environment where technology is woven into every facet of teaching and learning. From ubiquitous mobile computer labs, to a music technology lab where students play, record, and produce their own music, to the closed-circuit television network that enables students to film and distribute daily news broadcasts, educators at this unique elementary school say there is no limit to what technology can help students achieve.

“Thirteen years ago, when we began, technology was fairly new,” said Principal Mamie Buzzetti. “Now, it’s so common.” Still, she says, the school’s and the community’s interest in technology continues to grow.

At Mabry Middle School in Marietta, Ga., which received an award for technology innovation, students produce movies for an annual film festival. Despite limited access to technology, students in Mabry have worked with awarding-winning producers at Georgia Public Television and the Discovery Channel, among other high-profile media outlets, to write scripts, create visual interpretations, and hone their skills.

“There was very little technology when I first came to Mabry,” reported Principal Tim Tyson, who believes schools can be more effective when they concentrate more on how they use technology and less on how much technology they have.

“We have to stop underestimating kids,” he said. “The wrong questions is, ‘Should kids have laptops?’ The right question is, ‘What should kids be doing with laptops?'”

Representatives from each winning institution were on hand to accept a $10,000 cash grant from the Intel Foundation, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of hardware, software, professional development, and other prizes courtesy of the event’s co-sponsors, which included high-tech heavyweights Agilix Labs Inc., Blackboard Inc., Dell Inc., eInstruction, Films Media Group, Futurekids, Gateway, Microsoft Corp., Pitsco, Riverdeep, SAS, Scantron, Schoolnet, and SMART Technologies.

One representative for each school also will receive free registration to the upcoming T+L² Conference hosted by the National School Boards Association in Denver, Oct. 26-28.

Applications are now being accepted for the 2006 Intel and Scholastic Schools of Distinction awards. Applications are available at www.schoolsofdistinction.com.

Related item:

Complete list of winners
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5908

Links:

Intel Corp.
http://www.intel.com

Scholastic Inc.
http://www.scholastic.com/

Schools of Distinction web site
http://www.schoolsofdistinction.com/