Technology Integration and the Beacon School Portal

When the pundits first started looking at how the computer revolution could affect our schools, the first wave of theory looked at how computer and Internet technology could revolutionize the classroom. While that was an important piece of the puzzle, it really only told a small part of the story. The real potential for transformation lays in the way that Internet technology can break down the walls of schools, democratizing our schools and increasing the flow of information so that administrators, parents, teachers and students can more powerfully share in the educational community of a school.

The Beacon School, an alternative high school located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is part of the New York City public school system. It was founded in 1993 with the mission to incorporate arts and technology into the curriculum. With the launch of “†in September 1997 we began that process. While our first home page was more static in that first year, it still spoke to our belief that the Internet could provide a powerful link between school and family. Teachers began posting homework assignments on their Web pages, our parents association built their first pages and we first began experimenting with a parents’ list-service, Emailing announcements to parents to keep them in touch with the school. This was the first attempt to make our home page a source of information for the members of the Beacon community, ensuring that the page was not merely a way to showcase the activities of Beacon to outsiders, but also that the Web page played an important role for the members of the community.

Six years into our Web experiment, is much closer to becoming a fully interactive portal for all members of the Beacon community. Our theory is that the Web site can provide a service to all constituents in the community, enriching the school experience for all. One of the most important ideas for Beacon is that all members have a way to create content, and that all members have easy access to information that is relevant to them as well as relevant to the entire community. Another key part of our theory is that this system has grown organically, not as part of a pre-packaged software package, but created, whenever possible, using free software tools and written by myself and the students of Beacon. In fact, a student and I used a Linux-based programming language and database tool to write all portions of the “portal†software. Again, the philosophy behind the portal software must be in line with the pedagogy of our school. We don’t want to merely use technology; we want our students to be creators of technological innovation, just as we don’t want our students to just memorize facts but want them to have the skills to apply knowledge. The portal was created as a community effort, with that very pedagogy in mind.

While I manage the Web site along with the students of the Beacon Tech Squad, many different people run their own sections of the Web site. It is truly a community effort.

  • For example, we start with an on-line school newspaper, with the front page of consisting of the latest stories and announcements from the school. All of the stories are entered on a password protected administration center so that student writers and editors can collaborate with teachers on stories in progress.
  • Our Web-based radio station WBCN — Beacon Web Radio and Web-based Beacon Short Film Festival are both growing. Through this, Beacon students are able to broadcast radio shows, poetry, sporting events and other events.
  • Our Community Service Page offers links to community service projects such as food banks.
  • Our Parents Association publishes minutes of meetings, notices of upcoming fundraisers and other information on their Web page.
  • And of course, hundreds of students and many teachers keep their own personal Web sites, thus insuring that is a living document that reflects the diversity of experiences at Beacon.
  • This year, we have caught the “blogging†wave, andour students,teachers,and even classes are into blogging, demonstrating how it can both work within the classroom and as a personal expression within the larger school community.
  • In addition, our college counselor has created The College Blog as a clearinghouse of information on the college process.

However, it is the portal that creates a unique, individualized site with information for each student, teacher and parent. Every student and staff member at Beacon has an account which gives them space on Beacon’s file and Web server, a Email account and access to the portal. The portal is linked to our programming database so that, once a student or teacher logs in, they will then have access to their personalized schedule, as well as several functions that are for the entire community. All Beacon portal members get Web access to their Email, a personalized bookmark system and access to the school-wide discussion forums.

For teachers, in addition to the school-wide services, logging on to the portal gives them access to a great deal of services.

  • First, and most often used, teachers have the ability to enter homework assignments by class, or by entering one assignment for several classes at once, simply by entering the information into a form.
  • Teachers can access their class lists, viewable and printable with home phone numbers, as an attendance grid or as a grade-book grid.
  • Every class has its own discussion forum, open only to members of that class or other Beacon community members that the teacher gives permission to.
  • Every Beacon teacher has the ability to administer his or her own class conferences. In addition, staff has access to a staff-only forum for discussions that can be had among staff online without allowing student access.
  • Next is the Student Reporting System, this system allows teachers to enter comments about a student to be Emailed to either the student’s advisor, to all of a student’s teachers or directly to a student’s parents. In addition, every comment entered with this system is then logged, so that any teacher can view the comments a teacher has made about a student.
  • Finally, all teachers can write and view the anecdotal progress report cards. This allows for archival data to be available as well as allowing teachers to work from home on their anecdotal reports.

When students log into the portal, they are greeted with a page listing all of their classes, with the five most recent homework assignments posted in front of them. One click and they can get to all of the homework assignments posted in the class for the year. Teacher’s Email addresses are linked to their names for ease of communication, and each course’s forum is linked as well. This allows students to see a “snapshot†of their classes, as well as take part in forums that extend the discussions of the classroom beyond the time and space of the classroom. Many teachers are now experimenting with assigning dialogue in on-line discussions, through the forum, as part of their classroom assessment. And again, there are school-wide forums, a Web-based FTP client, a Web-based Email client, and a bookmarking system so that students can bookmark sites used for classes and access those sites from any computer. And finally, when they graduate, they can log their information on the alumni section of the Website and keep in touch with Beacon through our alumni list-serv. Overall, serves as the virtual center of a student’s existence at Beacon.

Parents also can use our portal to find out information, communicate with teachers and administration, and keep up on their student’s progress. With their student’s ID number, parents can quickly log onto the portal to get all of their child’s homework assignments, just as a student would see them. Again, teacher Email addresses accompany the class listings, as well as the course description for each class. Parents can access our lateness log to find out if their child has been attending classes on time, and “Beacon-Announce,†our parents’ list-serv, has swelled to include over 75% of all Beacon households. Through this list-serv, we send out the daily announcements, our Parents Association keeps parents up to date on their activities, and our directors are able to send urgent messages when necessary. This daily contact helps to keep parents very much aware of and involved in the life of the Beacon School. In addition, we are working to build a parent portal, where parents would have a unique account on the system that would give them even more detailed information on their children.

We never planned on using this in the case of a disaster, but when September 11th hit, we realized what we had built. We were able to quickly relay information on our Web site and via the beacon-announce listserv. We received messages from dozens of parents thanking us for building this system that, in a time of crisis, assured them that their children were safe when phone lines and more traditional forms of communication were knocked out.

In the end, the portal has changed the notion of where Beacon begins and ends. It allows us to extend the notion of “school†to anywhere a student or a parent can log onto the Internet and access our site. It has worked because it was built from the ground up in a collaboration of students, teachers and administrators building a system that made sense for our school, using tools that could be changed and improved over time. It is still very much a work in progress, with many changes and innovations still in the works, but most importantly right now, there is buy-in among administration, staff, parents and students to use the portal and push the limits of what it can do, and therefore, push the limits of the way we define our school.

Email: Chris Lehmann