Gulf Coast educators reveal tech needs

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As Gulf Coast school leaders grapple with how to rebuild educational infrastructures in an area of the country that ranks near the bottom in terms of student achievement, many in the devastated region are asking how educational technology can play a role to make sure their schools are rebuilt for 21st-century teaching and learning. In an effort to answer that question, members of the Hurricane Education Leadership Program (HELP), an Intel-led coalition of educational technology companies and nonprofit organizations, traveled to New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Plaquemines Parish late last month to witness firsthand the scope of the destruction and the efforts to recover.

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IBM to fit more onto microchips

The BBC reports that IBM researchers have found a way to get more out of the current microchip manufacturing method. Researchers have been able to etch circuits on silicon chips that are a third of the width of those made using existing technology. This discovery could lead to smaller chips with higher capacity in addition to avoiding a switch to potentially costlier and unproven chip-making methods. The new method could extend “Moore’s Law,” a guiding principle in the tech sector for the past 40 years…

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California ties grants to copyright education

Arstechnia.com reports that legislation is being considered in California that would tether the state’s educational technology grant program to teaching copyright laws to students. Schools that wish to apply for grants will need to demonstrate that they have a plan to educate their students in ethical behavior in information technology, the importance of copyright, and the implications of peer-to-peer file-sharing. The MPAA and RIAA have formally supported the bill…

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$50,000 literacy grants from National Governors Association

The National Governors Association (NGA) Center for Best Practices announced eight states have been selected to receive grants of up to $50,000 to help them develop literacy plans and policies to improve adolescent literacy achievement. After a thorough evaluation process, a selection committee independent of NGA selected grantees who will develop a K-12 literacy plan or establish a state literacy plan for grades four through 12 that aligns with the existing early literacy plan. The committee awarded grants to Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, and North Carolina. The grants will be administered by the NGA Center for Best Practices (NGA Center). The Reading to Achieve grant program will assist states at any stage in the development or implementation of plans to strengthen policies that promote adolescent literacy. Many of the selected states will employ strategies recommended in the NGA Center’s Reading to Achieve: A Governor’s Guide to Adolescent Literacy, which offers recommendations to policymakers based on best practices and research.

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Scholastic launches new site to promote science literacy

Ever wonder how the domed tortoise’s shell protects it from predators–or what Charles Darwin saw when he visited the Galapagos Islands? Scholastic.com recently launched a new section of its web site, called Science Explorations, as part of an ongoing partnership between Scholastic and the American Museum of Natural History to promote science literacy among students in grades 3-10. Students who visit Science Explorations can take part in live chats with scientists from the museum, uncover clues in online investigations and activities, and keep a record of their discoveries in their own field journal. Science teachers will find an interactive way to supplement lessons that support students’ development of key science and cross-curricular skills, including observation, formulating a hypothesis, interpreting clues, critical thinking, vocabulary, writing, and reading comprehension. Interactive explorations are tailored to students’ grade level and feature a range of photos and videos, narration, diagrams, maps, and charts to help with the discovery process. In the first Science Exploration, called “Animals, Adaptation, and the Galapagos,” users got an up-close look at the animals, plants, and terrain that Darwin confronted when he visited the island. Additional Science Explorations to come will include “Zoom in on Insects,” “Journey into Space,” “Investigate Invertebrates,” “Beam up with Bats,” and “Research Reptiles.” Students and teachers can dig further on each topic in Scholastic’s classroom magazines, SuperScience (for students in grades 3-6) and Scholastic Science World (for grades 6-10).

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Report blasts government’s indifference to disaster preparation

The deaths and suffering of thousands of Hurricane Katrina’s victims might have been avoided if the government had heeded lessons from the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and had taken a proactive stance toward disaster preparedness, a Republican-led House inquiry concluded.

But from President Bush on down to local officials, there was largely a reactive posture to the catastrophic Aug. 29 storm–even when faced with early warnings about its deadly potential.

A 520-page report, titled “A Failure of Initiative,” was released Feb. 15 as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff testified before a Senate committee conducting a separate investigation of the government’s Katrina response.

“The preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina should disturb all Americans,” said the report, written by a Republican-dominated special House committee chaired by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.

“Passivity did the most damage,” it said. “The failure of initiative cost lives, prolonged suffering, and left all Americans justifiably concerned our government is no better prepared to protect its people than it was before 9-11, even if we are.”

The hard-hitting findings allocated blame to state and local authorities and concluded that the federal government’s single largest failure was in not recognizing Katrina’s likely consequences as it approached. That could have prompted a mobilization of federal assets for a post-storm evacuation of a flooded New Orleans, the report said, meaning aid “would have arrived several days earlier.”

It also found that Bush could have speeded the response by becoming involved in the crisis earlier and says he was not receiving guidance from a disaster specialist who would have understood the scope of the storm’s destruction.

“Earlier presidential involvement might have resulted in a more effective response,” the inquiry concluded.

White House spokesman Allen Abney declined to comment on the report. On Feb. 13, White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend said Bush was “fully involved” in Washington’s preparations and response to Katrina.

The inquiry into one of the nation’s worst natural disasters looked at everything from the evacuation to the military’s role to planning for emergency supplies and in each category found much to criticize. The House study is the first to be completed in a series of inquiries by Congress and the Bush administration into the massive failures exposed by Katrina.

Katrina left more than 1,300 people dead in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, hundreds of thousands homeless, and tens of billions of dollars worth of damage. Bush has accepted responsibility for the federal government’s shortfalls, but the storm response continues to generate finger-pointing.

In a 59-page Democratic response released Feb. 12, Reps. Charlie Melancon and William Jefferson of Louisiana said that although they largely agreed with its conclusions, the report falls short of holding “anyone accountable for these failures.”

Despite its accomplishments, the committee “adopted an approach that largely eschews direct accountability,” Melancon and Jefferson said in their assessment.

The report finds fault with Chertoff for failing to activate a national plan to trigger fast relief, and with Homeland Security for overseeing a bare-bones and inexperienced emergency response staff. It found that the military played an invaluable role in the response but lacked coordination with Homeland Security and other relief agencies.

Moreover, federal agencies were unclear about their responsibilities under a national response plan issued a year ago. And lessons learned from Hurricane Pam–a fictional storm designed to test Gulf Coast preparedness–went unheeded.

Describing similar delays, the report concludes that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin waited until too late to order a mandatory evacuation of the city. Despite warnings of Katrina’s potential destruction 56 hours ahead of landfall, the evacuation order came only 19 hours before Katrina hit.

Charitable organizations such as the American Red Cross were described as overwhelmed by the sheer size of demands, leading to water, food, and other supply shortages and disorganized sheltering processes.

The House panel spent five months investigating the failures. It interviewed scores of federal, state, and local authorities, sorted through more than 500,000 pages of eMail messages, memos, and other documents, and held nine public hearings spotlighting sometimes feeble explanations by officials.

Though some Democrats mostly representing Gulf Coast districts participated in the House inquiry, their party leaders boycotted it, holding out for an independent commission similar to the one that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Links:

U.S. House report: “A Failure of Initiative”
http://katrina.house.gov/

U.S. House of Representatives
http://www.house.gov

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HELP arrives on the scene

When the Hurricane Education Leadership Program (HELP) traveled to Baton Rouge and New Orleans late last month to view firsthand the plight of schools affected by Hurricane Katrina, team members found school and government officials more than ready to accept help and recommendations for how to rebuild their schools for the 21st century.

Many education companies sent representatives to help team leader Terry Smithson of Intel Corp. coordinate recovery plans. These organizations included the Tiger Woods Foundation, the George Lucas Foundation, Scholastic, The Princeton Review, McGraw-Hill Companies, SAS, the Pearson Foundation, Futurekids, Scantron Corp., the Center for Digital Government, the International Society for Technology in Eduation, LearnStar, SchoolNet, Apple Computer, Pitsco, Ignite! Learning, and SMART Technologies, and eSchool News.

The team held a three-hour meeting with Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden and his staff, along with the Louisiana governor’s education policy advisor and superintendents of the East Baton Rouge Parish, Zachary Schools, Baker City Schools, and other districts.

Smithson also announced that Hudson La Force, the deputy assistant secretary for planning in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Planing, Evaluation, and Policy Development, will fill the fifth and final position on HELP’s Executive Oversight Committee.

The other four members of the committee are Melinda George, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA); Cathilea Robinett, vice president of the Centers for Digital Government and Education; Mike Hall, Georgia’s deputy superintendent of instruction; and Smithson.

Before joining ED, La Force was a general manager with Dell, and in 2002, he founded the Project on Government Leadership, a nonprofit research organization focused on developing new models of government guidance.

Smithson and other team members met with NBC executives to discuss New Orleans’ education plan. During the meeting, participants also discussed creating a media academy for multiple schools.

In addition, the HELP team toured Plaquemines Parish, the first area hit by Hurricane Katrina, and visited several destroyed schools to see how much damage the schools sustained and how long the road to recovery will be.

Smithson met again with Plaquemines Parish staff to discuss the parish’s current technology plan and to identify possible technology usage models. James Hoyle, superintendent of Plaquemines Parish, emphasized the parish’s need for help.

With HELP’s assistance, the Plaquemines Parish is progressing toward the creation of a 21st century learning environment, wrote Smithson in an eMail message to HELP team members. The parish plans to open a school for 600 students using portable trailers until the original building can be rebuilt.

On Feb. 16, Smithson had another meeting with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Don Hutchinson, Nagin’s economic advisor, to further discuss the recovery plan for New Orleans schools. Smithson said Nagin was supportive of HELP’s input and the idea to rebuild the city’s schools to be 21st-century learning environments.

The HELP coalition isn’t the only ed-tech initiative helping to rebuild Gulf Coast schools.

Students from 15 hurricane-ravaged school districts in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas soon will have access to educational content, thanks to a donation of mobile computer labs from Dell Inc., SETDA, and Cable in the Classroom.

“These mobile labs provide students with critical access to educational content, both in their classrooms and from the internet, that had been unavailable since the storms,” said Helen Soule, executive director of Cable in the Classroom. “They also demonstrate the powerful role that technology and online resources can play in restoring educational programs after disasters threaten to disrupt learning.”

The donation comes through a program called vSKOOL, a consortium providing education-related relief to K-12 students, educators, and families affected by the Gulf Coast storms. vSKOOL has established an online clearinghouse of donated educational products and services at www.vskool.org. Available items include online courses, test preparation services, software, and digital content, the group said.

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Imagining texts in a new form

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the advent of the Wikitext is almost here. Wikis are collaborative, freely licensed, and freely editable online projects. When applied to textbooks, the concept can open up an equitable solution for students around the world who may have some access to a computer, but not as much to traditional texts. While Wikitexts may never fully supplant traditional textbooks, they should significantly enrich and supplement them…

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Houston ISD automates lunch

One the nation’s largest school systems is automating school food service, giving administrators more information and parents more say about what students are eating.

A student slides a tray toward the cafeteria cash register with a healthful selection: a pint of milk, green beans, whipped sweet potatoes, and chicken nuggets–baked, not fried. But then he adds a fudge brownie.

When he punches in his code for the prepaid account his parents set up, a warning sounds: “This student has a food restriction.”

Back goes the brownie as the cashier reminds him that his parents have declared all desserts off-limits.

This could be a common occurrence at Houston schools as the district becomes one of the largest in the nation with a cafeteria automation system that lets parents dictate–and track–what their kids get.

Primero Food Service Solutions, developed by Houston-based Cybersoft Technologies, allows parents to set up prepaid lunch accounts so children don’t have to carry money, said Ray Barger, Cybersoft’s director of sales and marketing.

It also shows the cashier any food allergies or parent-set diet restrictions for an account, and the student is not allowed to buy an offending item.

Parents also can go online to track their child’s eating habits and make changes.

“If parents want Johnny to eat chips one day a week, they can go in and make changes to allow them to buy a bag of chips on, say, Fridays,” said Terry Abbott, spokesman for Houston Independent School District, the nation’s seventh-largest with more than 250,000 students. Robin Green, whose 14-year-old son, Jerry, is in seventh grade in the Houston district, said she probably would sign up for the new voluntary monitoring system once it’s implemented within the next year.

Green was concerned that parents from low-income families without access to computers would not be able to participate, but Abbott said parents can go to their school and work with cafeteria representatives.

Barger said his company’s system already is being used in schools in Arizona, Oklahoma, Michigan and Tennessee, as well as other Texas cities. Several other companies have similar cafeteria monitoring programs at other schools.

Prepaid cafeteria accounts have been around for years, but programs that allow parents to say what their kids can or can’t eat are a more recent development, said Erik Peterson, spokesman for the Washington-based School Nutrition Association. His organization did not have exact figures on how many school districts use such programs.

The Pearland School District, just outside Houston, set up one of the systems at its 17 campuses in August.

“Overall, it’s benefited everyone,” said Dorothy Simpson, food service director for Pearland schools. “Students go through the line faster. It’s good for parents because they can track what their kids are spending.”

The system, which will cost the Houston district $5.3 million, also serves as an accounting program that lets the school district plan menus and allows for faster enrollment of students in free and reduced-price lunch programs.

School officials and nutrition experts say this type of monitoring program could help tackle child obesity.

Links:

Houston Independent School District
http://www.houstonisd.org/

Cybersoft Technologies Inc.
http://www.cybersoftech.com/

School Nutrition Association
www.schoolnutrition.org

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Bill requires telling students about web risks

The Washington Times reports that under a measure expected to pass the Virginia General Assembly, teachers would be required to warn children about internet predators and offer instruction on Web safety. The bill would allow schools to develop lesson plans that warn children about posting personal information, photographs etc., on sites such as MySpace.com…

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