NYC's iZone360 gets personal

NYC's iZone360 gets personal

"The conversation has gone well beyond gadgets," said Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary of innovation and improvement for the U.S. Department of Education. A room of about 150 New York City educators nodded in response. The group, part of a NYC DOE initiative called iZone360, had gathered in Google's New York office to discuss revamping their schools for personalized instruction. The program aims to improve student learning and engagement citywide and eventually, nationally, even globally.

Technology ranging from SMART boards to iPads factors into these school redesigns. iZone360's mission reaches far beyond technology, though, to call for customized learning experiences that will better prepare students for college and careers. Patrick McGillicuddy, principal of East Brooklyn Community High School, said the program is about innovating by tapping into student potential. Phil Santos, principal of Manhattan's Leadership and Public Service High School, called iZone360 a platform to create a dream school.

The iZone360 initiative kicked off in 2011. The NYC DOE selects 26 middle and high schools each year to take part in the program, which is supported with federal Race To The Top grants and private donations. Schools receive funds, guidance and design/implementation help from select vendors. They're encouraged to rethink every aspect of their organizations, from curriculum to staffing to classroom layout.

Monday's event marked the end of a series of intensive meetings between the second group of schools ("Cohort 2" in DOE parlance). Small groups from each Cohort 2 school have met every few weeks since February to brainstorm and swap redesign ideas. Those ideas, known as "future state plans," were circulated at Monday's meeting and will be implemented starting in the fall.

iZone360 doesn't only stand for change; it also represents community. Representatives from several Cohort 1 schools were on hand Monday to guide the newer iZone360 schools.

Asked about the value of Khan Academy videos in the classroom, Alisa Berger, principal of Manhattan-based NYC iSchool, said many of her teachers prefer creating their own videos via a free iPad application and uploading them to WordPress sites. Making the videos takes just five to ten minutes, Berger added, and allows the teachers to talk to students "in their own vocabulary."

One-to-one computing was another lively topic. iZone360 schools can apply to receive up to 100 laptops each year. Those contributions have helped the Brooklyn High School of the Arts build up a stash of 350
laptops. By 2014, principal Margaret Lacey-Berman hopes to double that number to provide one laptop for each student. The school also supplies Apple iPad tablets to staff members for administrative and academic reasons, including using the iPads to control the SMART boards in their classrooms, said Lacey-Berman.

Learning management systems also attracted interest on Monday. Some teachers advocated Google Sites' free websites and wikis; others talked up Desire2Learn and Echo, the LMS developed by iZone360 vendor, the nonprofit  New Tech Network. Lacey-Berman said Brooklyn High School of the Arts is satisfied with using Echo (linked to Google Docs) for project-based learning. Participating schools get free access to the learning management systems during their inaugural iZone360 year.

Teachers also traded tips about standards-based grading systems. JumpRope (an iZone vendor) seemed to have the most buzz but a few other services, including JupiterGrades and TeacherEase, had fans, too.

Some of the event's most creative solutions took the form of avatars. Attendees logged on to Samsung Chromebook laptops (provided by Google) to test out two free services namely, Voki, and Goalbook. Voki lets teachers create talking avatars in the form of celebrities and historical figures. An avatar of Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, could perk up Black History Month lessons. Goalbook, a new app in beta, enables teachers to specify goals for students, as well as deadlines, and track their progress online.

Other technologies in use at iZone360 schools include online learning programs like Study Island and Achieve3000. iZone360 "innovation coach, Al Sylvia, said he knew two schools that had turned to Achieve3000 to teach English and social studies through reading level-appropriate news articles. Sylvia also knew of a Manhattan middle school that is testing e-learning platform BrainHoney for math instruction.

None of this technology was trumpeted at Monday's event, however, which took place in a bright café free of logos or corporate booths. DOE employees stressed that iZone360 is about quality instruction and best practices, not hardware or software. After all, a tablet is no more useful than an old-fashioned textbook if it doesn't capture a student's imagination and impart useful skills.

Since participation is limited to a few dozen schools, iZone360 will have greater impact when the schools reach out to share their lessons learned with others. On Monday, the Dept. of Education's Shelton reminded attendees of this duty. The latest Race To The Top guidelines--which still in review--"point to the importance of personalized learning on a national scale," said Shelton. "You're on the bleeding edge; the country will follow," he told the NYC educators. "Your lessons can help hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people."

--Elizabeth Woyke is a freelance reporter based in New York City.

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