N.C. schools get $10M for reform

Acknowledging North Carolina’s efforts to overhaul its education system to meet the demands of the 21st century, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has again given the state’s high schools more than $10 million, Gov. Mike Easley announced May 23.

The latest grant of $10.4 million grant comes after an $11 million contribution from the foundation in 2003 to jump-start high school improvements, develop teacher curriculum, and offer students more relevant courses.

“This is a totally different economy today than it was five years ago,” Easley said. “We have to do a better job of educating our kids and giving them the tools to compete.”

Since the original gift, North Carolina has opened 11 small campuses at existing high schools as a part of its New Schools project. An additional 21 campuses are scheduled to open in the fall, and 20 others will start up next year. The new campuses, designed for less than 400 students each, are academically rigorous, each with a different focus: biotechnology, information technology, international studies, and a variety of math, science, and engineering-based career paths.

All students participate in internships and other programs based on the recommendations of the Center for 21st Century Skills, a public-private partnership that has helped guide the curriculum makeover.

“We go out into the business community and ask: ‘What do you need from our high school graduates that you are not getting?'” Easley said. “We have to be a lot more nimble and flexible than we have been in the past.”

With the additional money in hand, the New Schools project now hopes to create an additional 150 reformed high schools across the state over the next five years. Each school goes through one year of planning, followed by five years of implementation.

The foundation grant includes $9 million to continue the New Schools project and $1.4 million to expand Easley’s Learn and Earn program, which gives students the opportunity to earn a high school diploma along with an associate’s degree or college credit. Easley wants 75 Learn and Earn schools in the state by 2008.

“There is not a state in the country that has better and broader leadership from the business community, the teachers’ association, and higher education,” said Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education for the Gates Foundation. “The good news is, we’re going to keep coming back. We intend to be a long-term partner here.”

The Center for 21st Century Skills grew out of North Carolina’s relationship with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a national nonprofit advocacy group consisting of 26 organizations and corporations. The Partnership has developed a framework for the skills today’s students need to succeed in the 21st-century workplace–and it’s this framework that has helped guide the center’s efforts.

North Carolina is one of two states to join the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. West Virginia is the other (see “West Virginia focuses on 21st century learning,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=6233).

Bill Gates is the chairman of software giant Microsoft Corp. His wife, Melinda, is a graduate of Duke University in Durham, N.C.

To date, their foundation has donated about $1 billion worldwide to education initiatives.

Links:

New Schools Project
http://www.newschoolsproject.org

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
http://www.gatesfoundation.org

Gov. Mike Easley
http://www.governor.state.nc.us

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OU server was in hackers’ hands for a year

News.com reports that a string of electronic intrusions into the university’s computer system has led to a sweeping reorganization of the computer services department as well as one technician being placed on a paid leave of absence. Recent findings show that data thieves compromised at least three campus servers–one of which had Social Security numbers of 137,000 people. The evidence suggests that this security compromise went undetected for about a year, a development that leaves some experts astonished. The university only became aware of the problem when the FBI alerted them that someone remotely controlled one of the school’s servers…

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Google enhances its digital maps with video of popular travel destinations–and images from Mars

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Internet search giant Google Inc. has been busy with more enhancements to its online maps. In March, Google launched Google Mars, a browser-based mapping tool that gives users an up-close, interactive view of the Red Planet with the click of a mouse. The Martian maps were made from images taken by NASA’s orbiting Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor. Users can see the planet in three different formats: The Martian elevation map is color-coded by altitude; the visible-imagery map shows the surface in black-and-white pictures; and the infrared map indicates temperature, with cooler areas dark and warmer areas bright. Users can zoom in on any of the three maps to view geographical features such as mountains, canyons, dunes, and craters, and the maps also pinpoint the locations of unmanned space probes that have landed on Mars. Last month, Google also announced a new partnership with Discovery Communications to enhance its popular Google Earth digital mapping service with video clips of historic sites and other locations around the globe. Through the partnership, Discovery will integrate streaming video of such locations as Yellowstone National Park, the Great Wall of China, Trafalgar Square, and others into Google Earth. By clicking on Discovery’s globe icon at sites for which Discovery video content is available, Google Earth users will launch an interactive broadband player hosted by Discovery that will enable them to select from several two- to four-minute videos from Discovery’s rich archive.

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Free, nationwide high-speed wireless network?

News.com reports that a Silicon Valley company has asked the United States government to provide a band of radio spectrum tagged for free, nationwide wireless internet access. This access would be supported with advertising. Basically, the idea is to create something similar to broadcast television, a model that would use local and national sponsors to pay for near-ubiquitous internet access…

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District to monitor students’ personal blogs

The Associated Press reports that the Board of Community High School District 128 of Illinois, in a unanimous vote, decided to require a pledge from students participating in extracurricular activities to sign a pledge guaranteeing that evidence of an “illegal or inappropriate nature” that is posted on the internet could be grounds for disciplinary action. This rule will take effect at the start of next school year. While officials won’t actively monitor student sites, they will investigate them based on a tip from a parent or community member. While some feel that this measure is inappropriate and raises privacy concerns, Assistant Superintendent Prentiss Lea disagreed, saying: “The concept that searching a blog site is an invasion of privacy is almost an oxymoron,” he said. “It is called the World Wide Web”…

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Ill. Board of Ed oks plan to cut company’s duties

The Chicago Tribune reports that the Illinois State Board of Education voted to strip Harcourt Assessment Inc. of the majority of its duties after the firm mishandled statewide standardized testing. In a unanimous vote, the board accepted the recommendation of Superintendent Randy Dunn to seek out another company to handle the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. Following the decision, Harcourt’s only role in the testing process will be to develop the ISAT layout and design… (Note: This site requires free registration.)

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Student TV finds home on web

Harvard University students have produced a TV soap opera called “Ivory Tower” on and off since 1994, but hardly anyone has ever seen it.

That’ because Harvard, like most schools, has no distribution system for the shows its students produce. From time to time, “Ivory Tower” has aired on a local public-access channel, but usually the budding producers have to settle for screenings in common rooms. “It’ not a very good situation,” says Stevie DeGroff, a junior who is the show’ marketing director.

Now “Ivory Tower” and other student-produced shows across the country might have gotten their big break, thanks to a new, internet-based TV network. The Open Student Television Network (OSTN) launched in April 2005, and it has signed up a wide array of schools in the past few months: the network now claims 30 member schools, with access at 208 institutions. Shows range from comedies such as “Elected,” a five-episode satire on student government from Brown University, to news programs and documentaries such as “Froshlife” from Duke University.

OSTN is part of a burst of TV channels targeting college students, mostly over the internet. There is also mtvU Uber, a slick, seven-month-old internet TV channel from Viacom Inc.’ MTV Networks that boasts a variety of content, from music videos to student-produced short films. Cdigix Inc., a Seattle company run by a former News Corp. executive, aims to deliver music and on-demand movies and TV to students through the web. So far, the company has signed up 50 schools, including the University of California at Los Angeles and Yale University.

Thus, even as big TV companies such as Walt Disney Co.’ ABC and General Electric’ NBC Universal strive to create broadband channels, there are already several streaming into dorm rooms across the country.

“These web-based channels for college students–so far pretty under the radar to the general population–will undoubtedly help shape how the networks move content online,” says Brad Adgate, an executive vice president at Horizon Media, a New York consulting firm.

The college channels might also become incubators for future TV shows. Ross Martin, director of programming for mtvU Uber, says part of the mission of the online channel is to uncover bits of content that could grow into full-blown series on its mtv2 and MTV channels.

The launch of these broadband channels parallels an explosion of amateur TV and film content on the web, fueled by the ever-dropping cost of producing a professional-looking product. Popular video-sharing sites such as YouTube.com have led more students to pull out video cameras and post their work. Students at Boston College this past winter created a web-based spoof of Fox’ teen soap “The O.C.” and have drawn an audience of about 400,000 people.

OSTN, a nonprofit linked to Case Western Reserve University, solves a big problem confronting campus television curriculums: Students are making more and more shows, but individual colleges dont have enough programs to build true TV schedules. That makes it hard to develop much of a regular audience, even if campuses do have a distribution system.

By aggregating offerings from different schools–in essence, syndicating college shows–there is more than enough content to fill a network. Says Rich Griffin, vice president of technology for OSTN: “Not every student has the same drive or talent, so maintaining momentum at a campus TV station can be difficult as people graduate. We try to fill that gap.”

The student shows can be very high quality, which isnt surprising considering that many Hollywood shows are created by fresh-out-of-college 20-somethings. “These kids are very serious,” says Shane Walker, OSTN’ vice president of programming.

Brown University juniors Matt Vascellaro and Kent Haines decided last spring to produce a five-episode mockumentary about student government. Called “Elected,” the miniseries skewers the leadership of Brown’ Undergraduate Council of Students. (One ditzy character is obsessed with making posters with glitter lettering; the executive council nixes a new candidate on grounds that she is “too pretty.”)

Brown doesnt have a television-production program or station, so the two producers relied on a couple of friends to help them write each 30-minute episode, cast dozens of students, build sets, and gather filming equipment. It took the pair about eight months to finish the project. Vascellaro says he edited the entire show on a laptop computer in his dorm room.

Many producers in Hollywood use some of the tricks Vascellaro discovered while putting the show together. For instance, he says, he found that if you put a good song in a scene that doesnt look very good, “nobody will notice.”

Like most students working on campus shows, Vascellaro intends to pursue a career in entertainment, and that is one reason OSTN is valuable, says Don Tillman, executive director of Trojan Vision, the student TV station at the University of Southern California. “This allows students to review each other’ work and get noticed,” he says. Trojan Vision, whose 300 student participants make it one of the largest student TV operations, delivers six of OSTN’ 29 programs.

There is a catch in terms of actually breaking out via OSTN, though. The network operates only on Internet2, an ultrafast, separate version of the web designed for academic researchers. As a result, only students and faculty can view it, though most colleges and universities are hooked up. To get a wider distribution, some student producers have developed web sites to screen their shows. “Elected,” for example, can be viewed at http://www.electedtv.com.

The mtvU Uber site is still in its infancy; the site received only 92,000 unique visitors during March, according to comScore Media Metrix Inc., but it is available to anyone with an internet connection.

“Every college student in America has a camera or knows somebody who does, and they play with them all day long,” says Martin, the mtvU Uber programming director. “These students increasingly want to see content that they have a hand in making.”

Links:

Open Student Television Network
http://www.ostn.tv

mtvU Uber
http://www.mtvu.com/uber

Cdigix Inc.
http://www.cdigix.com/website/cdigix

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Fridays disappearing from school calendars

CNN.com reports that in response to rising fuel costs, some schools in the Midwest are shortening the school week to save funds. Next fall, the 1,029 public school students in Salmon, Idaho will experience a four-day school week, as Friday classes are cancelled. According to a study by the National School Boards Association, the number of stats with districts that sanction the shortened school week has at least doubled–nine states and approximately 100 districts have supported the move. In order to meet minimum hour requirements, many districts on a reduced schedule have extended the school day to make up the difference…

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Miss. proposes self-paced, online curriculum

Mississippi Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds has unveiled a new $20 million proposal designed to offer seven possible career paths to high school students and online courses that would help prepare them for college and the workforce.

“Technology offers many options today that didn’t exist 15 or 20 years ago and can engage students in ways that traditional lecturing can not,” Bounds said in a recent newsletter to the state’s schools.

The plan is called Redesigning Education for the 21st Century Workforce in Mississippi. Bounds told eSchool News the plan is a “vision for the future of Mississippi’s middle and high schools.”

The state chief wants high school students to select classes related to their desired career field, much like in college, and the state will offer online courses to students who want to graduate early or to those who are behind.

The goals, Bound said, are to prepare students for the workforce more effectively and to lower the state’s dropout rate. About 35 to 40 percent of high school students in Mississippi fail to graduate, he said.

“They’re all going into the workforce,” Bounds said. “It’s our job to make sure they capture the [required] skills.”

Bounds said the default curriculum in the state has rightly been a college preparatory curriculum for middle and high school students.

“But we should have a fallback net,” he said. “As a high school principal [for 12 years], I would see many students who did not go through appropriate transitional activities in ninth grade. They would fail two or three courses, get behind, and feel like they were in too deep a hole to get out.”

Bounds said he hopes the proposed program will help students like these recognize they have a wider array of options beyond dropping out of school. The program will permit students to take self-paced online courses and also receive support through on-site instructors.

“If a student can complete a course in 60 days instead of 180, then that student should be able to progress at his or her own pace,” Bounds said. “For some, it may take longer.”

The state superintendent said the 21st-century learning skills and technology development that make up the curriculum would seem more relevant to students, who often are frustrated with subject matter they perceive as out-of-step with the current work world.

“We know they’re dropping out because it doesn’t seem to represent what happens in the future,” he said.

Bounds said he would ask the state Legislature in January to fund the program. By fall 2008, if the program proceeds as planned, students could select from one of seven career paths: health care; agriculture and natural resources; construction and manufacturing; transportation; business management and marketing; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); and human services.

Bounds’ plan also would redesign computer courses for students in grades 7-9. These courses now include a discovery program for careers (grade seven), computers (grade eight), and technology (grade nine). These would change to Information and Communications Technology I and II, then a STEM course in ninth grade, which Bounds said was “in line” with the president’s initiative to boost math and science instruction in schools.

All of these courses would include components that help students meet the math and science requirements for their grade level and career-level applications of these skills. In the 10th grade, students would begin the career path training in their chosen subject area.

Finally, Bounds said, a strong, ongoing professional development element would be incorporated into the plan as well.

“Ninth grade is also when many of these students will get their first opportunity to take dual [high school/college] credit courses,” he said.

Students speaking to local news organization The Clarion-Ledger were mixed in their reaction to the program.

Donovan Burse, a seventh-grader at Northwest Jackson Middle School, said he doesn’t believe most students are prepared to choose a career path at the life stage targeted by the program.

“Ninth grade is too early” to choose a career path, Burse said. “Maybe 10th or 11th grade.”

But Angelyn Irvin, an eighth grader at Northwest Jackson Middle School, said she believes the plan might “actually increase the chances of them staying in school … I think it will motivate them [and] make them want to stay instead of want to leave.”

Links:

Mississippi State Board of Education http://www.mde.k12.ms.us

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Educators rave about ‘chalkboards on steroids’

The Hattiesburg American reports that new interactive whiteboards are a big hit with educators at Hattiesburg’s Rowan Elementary. Following Hurricane Katrina, Promethean donated three “Activeclassroom” systems. These systems include an interactive whiteboard, LCD projector, and an interactive pen that serves as both a pointer and a mouse. The systems allow teachers to connect to the internet, access lesson plans, and involve students in interactive exercises. In the past, lessons would be static, but now educators can reach their students in whole new ways, and the district plans to buy 30 more of them, or one for each classroom, before the start of the next school year…

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