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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Chicago's VOISE Academy Launches Amid Tech Challenges

Students and teachers report on a digital high school's early progress and lingering obstacles.
Sara Bernard
Journalist

This is the second in a series of online reports about the inaugural academic year (2008-09) at Chicago's VOISE Academy High School, which introduced all-digital curricula to its class of 2012. Read part one.

When VOISE Academy High School opened last fall, its concept -- to teach high school curricula via digital media, with a few educators on hand to assist -- was still just a lofty vision. It would take a lot of hard work, some high expectations, and a little luck to put the idea into practice in the newly renovated classrooms, where an intranet and laptops replaced books and pencils.

Not surprisingly, the school stumbled through its initial months, when educators and students spent significant time overcoming technological and social barriers. But for the most part, the Chicago Public Schools's grand experiment in 21st-century education is already showing signs of progress.

Principal Todd Yarch says the 147 incoming freshmen, many of whom had little if any computer experience, are rapidly adapting to the online curricula, which has replaced traditional classroom instruction. His teachers are adjusting, too, supported by a resilient tech staff that's had to deal with everything from network crashes to computer theft. The small classes are fostering a close-knit, supportive academic climate, and they allow for tailored, subject-specific instruction. "Right around this time, things are starting to get comfortable," Yarch notes.

As everyone settles in, VOISE -- the initials stand for "Virtual Opportunities Inside a School Environment" -- is beginning to look like the model for future schools it aims to be. Edutopia.org recently checked in with a few staff members and students to record the first semester's successes and to identify some lingering challenges in building a secondary school whose academics and culture rely largely on technology.

Conquering the Digital Divide

At the start of the school year, every VOISE freshman received a Dell D630 laptop. By mid-November, VOISE also made good on its promise to provide each student with a refurbished desktop PC (most of them from Dell) for use at home. Still at issue is figuring out how to get Internet access to all those households; students need a DSL or cable connection to access the school's networks. But 99 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, so the school can't expect parents to pay for monthly broadband access, yet the school doesn't have the budget to pay for it, either.

As a work-around, the school keeps its doors open until 5 p.m. on weekdays and lets students return on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. On average, 20-30 students stay after school each day to do homework, and up to 40 students -- nearly a third of the student body -- show up on Saturdays. "I can't imagine that if it was optional for students to come in on Saturday at any of my other schools, any of them would," says algebra teacher Anna Cabral. "Although VOISE students complain about school as much as any other kids," she adds, "I think they actually enjoy it more."

Cabral suspects that this is true because, as members of the school's founding class, students feel a sense of pride and ownership of the place. Todd Yarch agrees. Early in the year, kids from neighboring schools stole several laptops. "It brought us together," the principal says. The thieves, he believes, wanted what VOISE students are privileged to have. "These kids don't have a lot," Yarch adds. "They probably never had that experience before." Luckily, the school's insurance policy helped replace those laptops, and administrators were able to purchase a few refurbished models as backups.

Many VOISE freshmen had never used a computer before entering high school. Few understood the basics of email or simple maneuvers in Microsoft Word such as copying, cutting, and pasting. So, during the first semester, teachers spent significant class time getting students up to speed.

Fortunately, says world-studies teacher Patrick Staley, they're showing daily improvement. In his classes, students can already move through the online assignments and quizzes, and they are learning how to research topics effectively online, make Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, and design Web pages. In fact, they're eating it up.

"In grammar school, we would have a computer class once a week, and that'd be for only 40 minutes," says student Tisha Phillips. "You'd want to learn more stuff, but you couldn't. Now, when we get to college, we'll already know what to do, because we'll have had four years of experience."

Meanwhile, VOISE staff continues to iron out connectivity kinks. Most of the school's course materials, homework assignments, and supplemental information are hosted on internal or external servers. A third party, Apex Learning, provides the basic curricula, and students communicate via School Town, a secure tool that lets teachers keep tabs on their activity.

When a network goes down, students still have their work saved on USB drives and hard drives as well as in email attachments they've sent to their teachers or on external Web sites, but every classroom has a content-specific set of printed textbooks just in case. A steady stream of technological challenges keeps staff on their toes, from resetting networks to untangling the mess of power cords that clutter classroom floors.

Setting Standards and Expectations

The technology is a key part of the school's culture, as is the small class size. The student body is supported by nine teachers, producing a ratio of less than 20 to 1. Because three of those instructors and the largely digital format of instruction are entirely new, there aren't many bad habits to break. However, teachers and students have devoted a huge amount of class time and energy -- 25 percent -- to establishing appropriate online behavior. "It's definitely challenging," says teacher Anna Cabral. "There are a lot of things that the Internet brings up that you have to deal with in terms of classroom management."

One of the big battles is keeping students on task without curbing their enthusiasm. One student, for instance, created his own Ning site so he could chat with peers during class. Rather than admonish his ingenuity, teachers opted to emphasize further the importance of appropriate Internet use and staying on task in class. Todd Yarch says the next group of incoming freshmen will likely spend even more time getting schooled in online rules and Net etiquette. "Our strength is not always technology," Yarch says. "If we had teachers who weren't nurturing, the laptops would be meaningless."

Students seem to appreciate this fact. "You can talk to anybody if you have a problem -- that's what I like about this school," says Tisha Phillips. "They will sit there and listen to you. I feel comfortable with all my teachers, every last one of them." Classmates Diamond Smith and Donzel McGee agree, adding that VOISE gives them the individual attention they didn't receive in elementary school.

VOISE also allows students to pace themselves in a way that's often unheard of in a traditional classroom. A typical algebra teacher might say, "Okay, class, we're in chapter seven, section one dash two." But the digital format of the Apex curricula allows each student to be on a different virtual page. "The kids who understand a topic can just move on -- they don't have to wait for the rest of the class," Cabral explains. "Some kids are now starting semester two because they flew through semester one, while others are in only the second unit of semester one."

Of course, this kind of self-monitoring is tough for some students. But the intimate class size and online curricula allow teachers to monitor individual progress and lend a hand when necessary, so no one falls behind. Teacher Patrick Staley appreciates that having the online curriculum makes his job easier and, at times, more effective. "We have some students who need special instruction," he says. "I can focus on those kids while the other students are still learning. It makes class time more efficient -- there's really no downtime."

The online curriculum has other advantages, too, such as a read-aloud feature. "I learn better because the online curriculum actually reads to you," says Kierre Hardin, who, like many VOISE students, entered his freshman year testing below the fifth-grade level in reading. "I understand more when someone's reading to me than when I read to myself."

"We've still got to find the right balance for it to work out really well," Cabral adds, "but I think that this model is definitely better in terms of serving more of the kids at once. It's hard for students to just put their head down because they're lost or bored if they have access to work that's at the right level."

It will take years to determine whether the VOISE model could or should become the standard for high schools statewide and across the country. But on a very small scale, it appears to be working in terms of teaching tech and basic skills -- and keeping students engaged in their studies. Would student Donzel McGee recommend the school to his friends? He replies, "I already did."

Sara Bernard is a former staff writer and multimedia producer for Edutopia.

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