Similar to many other high schoolers, a class of students at the New York City iSchool are studying Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. But their assignment for the novel is more than an essay: The students must create in small teams a five-minute movie preview for the storyline using film editing software. They can recruit other students to act in the cinematic shorts, or create the project wholly online. It's up to them.
These students are part of the public iSchool, a three-year-old brainchild of Joel Klein, the city schools chancellor. The Soho school aims to link its 320 students to growing technologies they will increasingly need to utilize upon graduation.
"We talk about the real world," said Principal Alisa Berger. "It's important that students be there."
The school often brings in experts—in-person and through video conferencing—to add input and criticize the students' work, and requires students to follow their individual interests through field work. In recognition of its innovations, the school on Sixth Avenue was awarded a Blackboard for Technology Integration.
In addition to taking five required courses—such as algebra and biology—each academic quarter, students at the college preparatory school take an additional elective known as a "module," which explores a theme through both individual projects and teamwork. A "Green Roof" module helped students plan for the grassy covering that will soon top their own building, which is shared with Chelsea High School. Through video conferencing, an architect who works on environmental projects chipped in on the soundness of their design.
Another module called "Sixteen" focuses on what it means to be a teenager around the world. On Monday, the seminar bounced around ideas of how one's native language impacts their perception of time—with students chiming in with examples from English to Chinese. Soon, the discussion will branch out to participating classrooms in other countries.
The so-called "blended courses" of the iSchool combine the traditional classroom experience with "dynamic resources," said Curtis Borg, the school's technology coordinator. He estimates that students spend about 70 to 80 percent of their time with the school's technology.
For every course, the school offers a "virtual desktop" where students can access their work and assignments remotely from any computer, even allowing them to print their work at home and retrieve it from the school the next day. Classes range between eight and 28 students, and have enough laptops for each person. The courses also help students comb through an abundance of online resources and technologies, said social studies teacher Tom Jones.
"There needs to be a fine balance of utilizing what's out there in limited time," said Jones, who helps his students carry their classroom debates to citywide tournaments.
The idea for the iSchool was born in 2005 when Chancellor Klein decided that there should be more technology-based schools for the 21st century. With the help of Mort Zuckerman, the owner and publisher of the New York Daily News, and Cisco Systems, the school was launched in 2008 with just a freshman class. It has been adding a new grade every year, and next year will have four full grades.
Students apply to the school through its website, and about 120 are accepted from 1,500 applications through a computerized random process. Now the school body consists of students from 40 middle schools. The majority of students qualify for reduced or free lunches.
When they reach the 10th grade, students choose an area of focus such as science or writing, and frequently meet in small groups with a mentor. By the 11th grade, they narrow it down to a project and, in the 12th, they will implement it. One student interested in journalism, for example, is planning to launch the school's first newspaper as her project.
The iSchool is a flagship for the "iZone," or "Innovation Zone," according to Borg. The Department of Education launched the project this year, with the hopes of adding 25 technology and career driven K-12 schools to New York City's ranks within the next year.
In the coming year, the iSchool will continue to expand its offering of modules and "real world" themed projects, said Berger, further helping its students acquire job-savvy knowledge and practice.
"These are the skills that will be valued," said Berger. "We have to prepare students with them."
— By Rachel Stern