Making a connection

Stationed thousands of miles away in Afghanistan, Staff Sergeant Kevin S. Cook is online checking a list of reading materials for his daughter Alexis, a second-grader attending Rockfish Elementary School in Hope Mills, N.C.

He selects a few that he thinks she’ll like, purchases them, and then records his own voice reading the books. Although he can’t be there to read to Alexis in person, he sends a little piece of himself home while serving his country.

This is how just one of the many families in Hope Mills with parents stationed overseas is using Follett Software’s Destiny Library Manager to stay connected. Cumberland County, N.C., is home to Fort Bragg, one of the nation’s largest U.S. Army bases, and the use of browser-based Destiny software has created a unique way of allowing parents serving abroad to stay involved in their children’s education.

Alexis’s taped library from her dad creates an extra connection that bridges the miles during long tours overseas. One of her favorite books is Mercer Mayer’s Just Me and My Dad.

"She usually listens to it right before bed," said Dondra Cook, Alexis’s mom and a teacher at Rockfish Elementary. "That way, her dad gets to read her a bedtime story even when he’s not here."

While making that connection possible, Destiny also has become a homework tool for the Cooks–dad Kevin’s involvement with the software and creating the books on tape encourages and nurtures their children to read more, Dondra said.

"It relieves some of the pressure for the parent at home in a way," she added. "Even though they are not physically there, when the parent who is away takes an active role in the learning process, it ensures that the kids are meeting their reading requirements and doing the necessary homework."

Other families at Rockfish have taken to the software as a great tool for viewing materials that are reading level and age-appropriate for their students, said Carla Brooks, media coordinator at Rockfish Elementary. Brooks’ husband, Master Sergeant James Brooks, recently returned home after serving a 15-month tour in Iraq. The couple’s triplets–Andrew, Samantha, and Michael– are first-graders at the school.

"Some of the soldiers have looked up books to make recommendations to their children attending Rockfish," Brooks said. "A large number of our parents here at home are using the software as well."

Rockfish, with one of the highest circulations of library resources in the district, has shown a wide range of uses for Destiny, including tackling a number of challenges that the school faced prior to implementation.

"One of the value-adds that Destiny provided for this unique school district was to create a channel in which parents at home, as well as those stationed abroad, could be actively involved in their children’s education," said Tom Schenck, president of Follett Software Co. "Destiny Library Manager’s capabilities have facilitated that connection, as well as a number of other needs that the district sought to address."

Bridging the miles

Staying connected with loved ones serving overseas can be complicated; communication channels are limited by location and available technology. For military families accustomed to sporadic contact during deployments, today’s technology has created channels of communication that were unavailable even during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune.

During the latter part of the Vietnam War in the 1970s, soldiers and their families exchanged tape recordings to hear each other’s voices, according to Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University.

The internet has made that level of contact seem quaint. It first became widely used by soldiers stationed in Kosovo in 2000, he said.

A survey done in 2003 found that three-quarters of the troops in Iraq said they use the internet several times a week, Moskos said. Partly as a result, he said, morale has remained high among soldiers, despite long and repeated deployments.

"We were fortunate enough to be able to talk to my husband via webcam," Brooks said. "But not everyone has that capability. It depends on where the person is stationed."

Smart solutions

More than just the ability to keep parents apprised of their children’s reading, school administrators in Cumberland County saw a need to expand the use teachers and students received from the district’s library resources.

Before implementing Destiny in August 2006, the 88 schools serving more than 53,000 students in the countywide district were using a 20-year-old, site-based library automation system, limiting use to workstations located at the individual libraries. The outdated system limited access to resources and was labor-intensive–a web-based solution was needed to open up access to all of the district’s libraries.

Once the district adopted Destiny, the results were dramatic: Library circulation increased by 30 percent, there was a significant increase in parent participation, an interlibrary loan program was created, and much more.

"Because Destiny is web-based, students can do their research from home and access collections at all 88 schools. That’s revolutionary," said Belinda Cashwell, Cumberland’s director of media services. "Even our parents in Iraq are helping their students do research. Regardless of where their parents are stationed, they can be actively engaged in their child’s learning."

The web-based software provides a familiar technology interface for students, making them more comfortable and more likely to use the library, Schenck added.

Other benefits Destiny has provided to the district include system access from anywhere at any time; a State Standards subscription service that allows users to find materials and web sites that support North Carolina Standard Course of Study objectives; and a TitlePeekz subscription that helps younger students search more effectively by allowing them to look at book covers.

The Destiny Resource Management Solution is a fully integrated system that gives districts and schools the power to manage resources centrally. Districts can choose to implement the system as a whole or select the modules that address their top priorities. The full solution includes Library Manager, Textbook Manager, Asset Manager, and Media Manager.

Links:

Cumberland County Schools

Follett Software Co.

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French court bans naming teachers on school-rating web site

A French court has ordered a web site that allows pupils to rate their schools to stop naming teachers after the country’s educational establishment denounced it as "public lynching," AFP reports. The web site, www.note2be.com, which launched in January based on similar sites that have existed for years in the United States, Britain, and many other countries around the world, proved wildly popular with students and parents. But teachers, already smarting after a suggestion by President Nicolas Sarkozy that they might face performance reviews to which students could contribute, were incensed. A group of teachers and several teachers’ union asked a Paris court to decide whether the site broke privacy laws by publishing teachers’ names and ratings and whether it breached their right to be judged only by superiors. On March 3, the court ordered the site to stop using teachers’ names both on the general site and in its discussion forums and said it would impose a fine of 1,000 euros per day for each day it failed to implement the judgment…

Click here for the full story

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A French court has ordered a web site that allows pupils to rate their schools to stop naming teachers after the country’s educational establishment denounced it as "public lynching," AFP reports. The web site, www.note2be.com, which launched in January based on similar sites that have existed for years in the United States, Britain, and many other countries around the world, proved wildly popular with students and parents. But teachers, already smarting after a suggestion by President Nicolas Sarkozy that they might face performance reviews to which students could contribute, were incensed. A group of teachers and several teachers’ union asked a Paris court to decide whether the site broke privacy laws by publishing teachers’ names and ratings and whether it breached their right to be judged only by superiors. On March 3, the court ordered the site to stop using teachers’ names both on the general site and in its discussion forums and said it would impose a fine of 1,000 euros per day for each day it failed to implement the judgment…

Click here for the full story

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Lawmakers feud over virtual schooling’s future

Wisconsin lawmakers are locked in a largely partisan dispute over the future of online instruction in that state.

The Wisconsin General Assembly voted 53-44 on Feb. 28 to keep the state’s online public schools open next fall. However, lawmakers continue to disagree over how many students should be allowed to enroll. If there’s no deal in the next two weeks, the state’s 12 virtual schools could shut down, because an appeals court has ordered that their state funds be cut off.

According to a ruling by the appeals court in December, virtual schools violate Wisconsin state laws on teacher licensing, open enrollment, and charter schools. If lawmakers don’t reach an agreement, a dozen virtual schools enrolling 3,500 children will begin closing.

Governor Jim Doyle, a Democrat backed by the state’s largest teacher’s union, has demanded that any bill include an enrollment cap and an audit of the schools to gauge their effectiveness.

Two weeks ago, with the support of Gov. Doyle, the state senate passed virtual-school legislation that would freeze enrollment levels for two years while the schools were studied. Under the senate bill, enrollment gradually could increase to 4,500 in 2014.

State representative Brett Davis and Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch, both Republicans, sent a letter to Doyle on Feb. 27 outlining a compromise: They’ll agree to cap enrollment at 1 percent of all students in Wisconsin’s K-12 public schools, or about 8,700 students. Siblings would be exempt from the cap. They also agreed to an audit of the state’s virtual schools.

This cap is 2.5 times larger than what Gov. Doyle called for.

Davis says he doesn’t believe in capping enrollment, but he knows Doyle won’t sign anything into law until he gets what he wants.

“I’m a realist,” Davis said. “I want to make sure these schools stay open.”

Yet, Doyle spokeswoman Jessica Erickson said the governor likes the virtual-school legislation passed by the senate as is.

“The governor believes the bill already amended by the senate protects these kids and their siblings and ensures they can remain in their schools while we study the system,” Erickson said.

Other reports say Doyle might be willing to raise the enrollment cap, but not to the 8,700 the GOP wants. Doyle has hinted he would veto the Republicans’ compromise.

Davis and Huebsch said in their letter to Doyle that Republicans can’t abide a two-year lockout.

“We believe our offer is a reasonable solution whereby we can save the virtual charter schools, provide an audit of the program, and implement a less restrictive cap,” they wrote.

Rose Fernandez, president of the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, said Davis and Hubert’s deal is better than the two-year freeze on enrollment Doyle wants.

“You got your cap. You got your audit,” Fernandez said. “Accept bipartisanship and compromise.”

Even if lawmakers reach a deal, not all will be happy with an enrollment cap of any size.

In an editorial written for The Capital Times, Joni Burgin, superintendent of the Grantsburg School District, said her district’s virtual school just opened and would not be able to survive with an enrollment cap.

“Wisconsin still has an achievement gap that leaves poor children, English-language learners, and children of color lagging behind. Closing it must be at the heart of everything we do,” wrote Burgin. “When Wisconsin has school programs that are finally working to narrow that gap, we owe it to our students to keep those programs in place.”

She concluded by saying that politicians who vote for caps on virtual schools “contribute to the dropout problem instead of being a part of the solution.”

Republicans have accused Doyle of being too close to the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union. That group contends virtual schools pull too much money from traditional public schools and brought the lawsuit that has thrown the schools’ future into doubt.

Links:

Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families

Wisconsin Education Association Council

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Harvard scholars to explore web safety

Leading internet scholars at Harvard Law School will head a task force exploring the safety of users at MySpace and other popular internet hangouts, amid growing fears that youngsters have become targets of sexual predators online.

The creation of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force is part of an agreement that MySpace, a unit of News Corp., reached with all state attorneys general except Texas’s in January.

Initial participants include leading internet companies such as Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., Time Warner Inc.’s AOL, and MySpace rival Facebook, along with internet access providers and nonprofit groups.

The task force will have a broad mandate to explore technical ways to keep children safe online–not only from sexual predators but also from online bullies and adult content.

The task force will evaluate a broad range of existing and state-of-the-art online safety technologies, including a review of identity-authentication tools to help sites enforce minimum age requirements.

Although MySpace was in charge of creating the group, naming its members, and choosing Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society to run it, the task force became independent of MySpace effective Feb. 28, said John Palfrey, Berkman’s executive director.

The task force’s initial “all-hands” meeting should take place in the next few weeks, said Seth Young of the Berkman Center.

Young said the task force plans to hold a handful of meetings and produce a series of quarterly reports for the state attorneys general. In December, the task force will publish a final report with its recommendations. Although Young indicated the quarterly reports will be solely for the attorneys general, he said the group’s final report will be available to the public.

The task force meetings are likely to be closed to the public, he said, because the group will be dealing with a number of sensitive topics.

“The safety concerns posed by the internet are part and parcel of the safety concerns that arise in human interactions in the physical world,” said Berkman’s Palfrey. “These concerns are not unique to any one service or technology platform; they are shared by the companies that provide internet services and the individuals who use these services. We should work together–private firms, technologists, experts from the nonprofit world, and leaders in government–to solve online safety issues as a joint effort.”

Link:

Berkman Center for Internet and Society

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