A series of theme-based high schools are springing up across New York City, based on a model that has been open for only a year but already is drawing rave reviews. Called the iSchool, this model school blends innovative technology with project-based curriculum modules–and its early success could have national implications.

In an open commons area on the fifth floor of SoHo’s Chelsea High School, where the iSchool is based, students gather proudly by their projects.

“Hi, would you like to come and see what we’re doing here at our school?” says one girl, dressed in a skirt and heels for her big day.

Over by a glazed brick wall are three high-end computer monitors, each displaying a unique project the students have decided to highlight to members of the press, parents, and New York City Department of Education (DOE) officials.

Above the taxi horns and other sounds of a busy city morning that drift in from the open windows, Bria Jojo Lewis, a ninth grader at the iSchool, gushes about her group’s 9-11 project.

“To help spread the word about the National September 11th Memorial and Museum, we talked to students from around the world and here in the U.S. about their perspectives on what happened here in New York. We used technology like video conferencing, eMail, and social networking,” she says.

“As part of the project, we each typed out an interview we thought was interesting, and then we acted out the personal account while being videotaped,” chimes in Lewis’ friend Maite Gonzalez, also a ninth grader at the iSchool. “In one interview we talked to this Australian girl about how she thought terrorism is just a part of life, so I found that interesting.”

“And another student we talked to from Pakistan said he sees what happened on 9-11 differently, because he feels his people are victims, too, in a lot of ways,” adds iSchool freshman Tristan King. “This is a work in progress, and it’s taken a semester, but soon we’re going to use video editing software to edit these enactments down and then post them on different outlets. The National 9-11 Museum is also going to use [our project] as part of its exhibit.”

“But there are more projects–you wanna see?” says Lewis.

It’s not just the sheer enthusiasm of the students that signals iSchool must be doing something right; it’s also the fact that Chelsea High School–which just eight months ago received an “F” from the city DOE–is now seeing amazing results, thanks to the opening of the iSchool in September.

Last year, Joel Klein, chancellor of the city’s schools, decided he wanted to open seven selective public schools in New York City, and one was the iSchool, which would focus on technology and innovation.

With the help of Mort Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News and World Report and a well-known philanthropist, and Cisco Systems, the iSchool was created.

How it works

The iSchool opened with 100 ninth graders and is a four-year high school. Five percent of students are in special education, 67 percent are Title 1 students, and students come from all five boroughs.

As part of the citywide high school choice process, iSchool students must average 85 or above in all major subjects, have a good record of punctuality and attendance, and complete the iSchool’s online admissions process.

The iSchool is based on what it calls learning modules. These modules are interdisciplinary, project-based, and focus on real-world issues, or what co-principal Alisa Berger calls “Big Ideas,” that bridge the divide between the high school experience and the real world.