When 6th graders Lauren Giffee and Maria Rivera needed information for a project on Northern Ireland, they logged on to school computers for a trans-Atlantic journey through cyberspace.
Scouring some 200 Internet addresses, they came across Darius Whelan, a law professor in Tallaght, Ireland. After they exchanged e-mail introductions, Whelan sent the girls a detailed, two-page e-mail letter answering their research question, "Can there be lasting peace in Northern Ireland?"
"This was all that I had hoped for and more," says their teacher, Tim O'Brien. "The currentness of the information was most gratifying."
Far from being an exception, such research is the goal at O'Brien's school, the Accelerated Learning Laboratory, now in its third year of reform under a technology-based design called Co-NECT.
Co-NECT was developed by the international telecommunications company Bolt Beranek & Newman Inc. It is one of nine designs funded by the New American Schools Development Corporation, a private, nonprofit group launched during the Bush Administration to help create models of innovative schools. The company has received $9.6 million in NASDC grants for planning and implementation of the Co-NECT design.
Co-NECT, the most technology-intensive NASDC design, is shorthand for "Cooperative Networked Educational Community for Tomorrow." In addition to its emphasis on technology, the model stresses community involvement in school management; high performance standards for all students; project-based learning; and collaboration among staff and frequent staff development.
A Co-NECT school may spend up to $85,000 on first-year wiring for computers and video equipment. A less intensive "Co-NECT affiliate" option is also available, costing up to $35,000.
"It's impossible to scale up and get the results we need without the critical use of technology on a wide scale," says Bruce Goldberg, the director of restructuring services in Bolt Beranek's educational-technology department.
Beyond Word Processing
The all School's 543 students and 30 teachers use computers for research, individual instruction, and staff training. There is one computer for every six students, and each student in grades 6 through 9 has an e-mail address. Students also produce a daily newscast on local and international events for viewing within the school.
Each teacher has a computer and receives ongoing technology training. Teachers are encouraged to communicate with their colleagues at other Co-NECT sites via computer.
Tom Glennan, who is helping evaluate the NASDC designs for the rand Corporation in Washington, says that Co-NECT's creators "see technology as important for accessing resources and expertise." In contrast, he says, many schools use computers only for drills and word processing.
In custom designing their school, Worcester officials chose from 25 Co-NECT design strategies, many of them commonly used with gifted students.
For starters, they elected to organize students into multigrade groups: primary, K-2; intermediate, 3-5; advanced, 6-8; pre-masters, 9-10; and masters, 11-12.
Within those groups, teachers, students, and administrators are organized into "clusters." Cluster teachers meet at least five hours a week to share ideas and expertise for long-term planning. They are not required to team-teach, though some do.
Teachers say the system has forged a new collegiality at the school. A byproduct of that is a teachers' video club that meets weekly to review videotapes of classes.
The school year is divided into four nine-week cycles, each with a different global theme. Students and teachers jointly develop a class project for each cycle. While core academic subjects are woven into the projects, some topical workshops are offered.
O'Brien's segment on the peace process in Northern Ireland, for example, was the focus of a nine-week cycle on Europe and Asia.
One class studied fashion during a North American cycle. Students learned mathematics by measuring patterns for clothing. Chemistry was covered by researching material fibers.
"I believe with all my heart and soul that this is the way of the future," said Linda Beriau, who taught the fashion project to the 6th through 8th graders.
Founded in 1948, the Cambridge, Mass.-based Bolt Beranek & Newman is a leader in telecommunications technology that reported $196 million in revenue for fiscal 1994.
Education has long been a focus of the company, whose researchers developed Logo, a popular computer programming language for children, in the 1960's and helped pioneer the field of cognitive science in the 1970's. More recently, the company has positioned itself as a provider of Internet support to schools.
But joining NASDC gave the organization a real-world laboratory.
"Early on, we worked with teachers and individuals, but we didn't change the nature of education," says Goldberg.
For example, the company hopes to improve teacher interaction with its "Co-NECT School Exchange," a service that allows Co-NECT schools to hold on-line meetings and exchange e-mail.
The team is also the only for-profit NASDC grantee.
"I think there is money to be made in school reform, but not a fortune," says John Richards, the manager of the company's education-technology department.
Still, the direct link to Co-NECT schools provides Richards's staff members with immediate feedback on new products and ideas and keeps them close to their customer base.
"It's been a fabulous opportunity," he says. "When you can work with a complete school, it helps research."
Glennan says the company's "good credentials" help it avoid the "negative vision" most schools have of for-profit outfits.
Seven of its 50 education staff members work full time on Co-NECT, mostly as consultants to the schools using the design. Others develop technology, such as World Band, a service that lets Co-NECT schools jointly compose and share music.
In addition to the all School, there are two other Co-NECT schools, one in Hammond, Ind., the other in Juneau, Alaska. Others are on the way. Officials in the Dade County, Fla., school district voted in March to begin using the model at three sites next fall. The Miami-area schools, to be picked this spring, will average about 1,400 students each and will be the largest schools using the model.
Dade County, along with 10 other jurisdictions, has been tapped by NASDC to create large numbers of innovative schools over the next five years using one of the nine designs. Co-NECT designers have been making presentations to the other jurisdictions as well, hoping some will sign on for next fall.
'Dream' School Emerges
For Principal Carol Shilinsky, the Co-NECT program came along at just the right time. In 1991, Shilinsky was told to convert her aged Woodland Street Community School into a magnet program to attract students from outside the school's low-income, mostly minority, inner-city community.
The mandate was the greatest opportunity of her 25-year career.
"We sat down to draw up a dream school, and that's what we did," she says.
But the outline, which included new technology, grade clusters, portfolios, and longer classes, was so sweeping and potentially chaotic, Shalinsky recalls, that "our gut feeling was that we were going to be so different that we didn't want to go for it."
Enter Bolt Beranek, which had met with Worcester school officials about implementing Co-NECT. It turned out that the ideas of Shilinsky and her staff paralleled those of the Co-NECT designers. In 1992, a deal was struck to create the Accelerated Learning Laboratory with Shilinsky as principal.
"We never would have gone as far without Co-NECT," says Shilinsky, who feared that her ideas would not be embraced locally. "Being part of Co-NECT gave us credentials as a nationally accepted design."
Still, the school remains a curiosity in Worcester. Some residents are confused by the abbreviated name, "the all School." Some folks think it's a gifted-and-talented center, while others think it means that the school "has it all."
In fact, while the elementary site, which now houses grades K-6, was wired and given new equipment, it suffers from old deficiencies. The streets around it are marred by potholes. There is no parking lot, and the playground is a small asphalt courtyard. And while 50 percent of the students now come from outside neighborhoods, they represent all ability levels.
The intermediate site opened in a modestly sized former nursing home in the fall of 1993 with 150 students in grades 6-8. Classes are held in what were once residents' rooms. Ninth grade was added this year, and 10th grade will begin in the fall. Beginning in 1997, all students will be housed in a new building.
But as student projects and growing community involvement enhance the school's visibility, Worcester residents are slowly coming to see the all School as a center of educational innovation.
For example, since September, Worcester Police Officer John F. Mahan has worked with 31 9th graders to ban the sale and possession of pistol crossbows as part of a school unit on law and government. The weapon is sold at local festivals for about $25. It can launch a roughly eight-inch arrow through a watermelon and well into a city telephone book.
Working with Mahan, the students received help from the state attorney general's office--including a computerized set of state statutes--and testified in March before the state legislature.~ "I do a lot of school projects," Mahan says, "but we have never had a group of students carry something so far."
Nancy Plante, the mother of two all School students, is a Co-NECT convert.
Her 14-year-old son, Nicholas, after doing well in primary school, was failing in a larger middle school. Worried about sending the boy to an even bigger high school, the Plantes signed their sons up for the all School.
Nicholas made an about-face and is a student leader on the weapon-ban effort. "I've never seen such close relationships between students and teachers," Plante says. But, she adds, "We're still a little nervous because it's not fully accepted by the school community."
Says Nicholas: "Traditional school is boring, and this is exciting. I don't think I could go to traditional school again."
A Difficult Change
Frank Lentvorsky, the principal of Scott Middle School in Hammond, wants all 800 of his 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in a Co-NECT model. He's halfway there, but he's not likely to get much closer.
In January, half his teachers voluntarily converted to the school's own version of Co-NECT, which includes teacher clusters and project-based learning. The other half voted not to change, and follows a traditional model.
"Traditional school worked well for some students, but there were a ton who were disenchanted or didn't like school for some reason," he says.
Despite some promising results, he doubts his entire staff will ever voluntarily convert. "You can say that there will be no peace in our time," he adds. "People get entrenched, and change is difficult."
Multi-age grouping was a big sticking point for his teachers. And while some 6th graders are thriving alongside older students, bridging the vast range of abilities between 6th and 8th graders remains a challenge. Thus, to supplement the regular classwork, teachers offer seminars in math and other topics for students.
"It requires a lot of change because you cannot rely on textbooks," says Lentvorsky. "When you get into projects, teachers have to learn with students."
Worcester teachers say that was especially true with computers. Keri Giles, who teaches grades K-2, took one computer class as part of her education major. "I was nervous because I didn't know what I was doing," says Giles, who has taught for three years.
But through staff training and with the help of her students, Giles now prepares plans and individual lessons on computers. "I can't imagine not having them."
But even at the all School, change had its casualties as five of Shilinsky's 20 teachers left rather than convert to Co-NECT.
"It was not opposition to Co-NECT as much as they didn't want to be involved with outside forces," she says.
The Co-NECT designers consider teacher support so important that they urge schools to adopt the model only after a majority of teachers votes for the change. But even that might not be enough for long-term reform, says Goldberg, who found out early on with NASDC that district commitment is also essential.
One of the first schools that had agreed to use Co-NECT was an inner-city Boston elementary school. But when district and school administration changed, so did commitment to the program. That became clear the day work crews showed up for scheduled retrofitting at the school and said that computer wiring was not on the year's schedule.
The Boston project was scrapped.
Glennan of the rand Corporation applauds the willingness of the Bolt Beranek team to make internal adjustments based on such experience. Having given its staff free rein to create, the company is also practical and flexible, he says.
He cites a new Co-NECT affiliate program, which emphasizes less initial capital expenditure on technology and more consultation. ~"It reflects a sense that there are planning activities that need to precede implementation," Glennan says.
Richards says the Co-NECT design is still evolving, but remains a "solid model."
"Insofar as people want to use technology, this is the way to go," he adds. "But whether the country will invest is another question."
"Breaking the Mold: The Shape of Schools To Come" is an Education Week occasional series on the projects and progress of the New American Schools Development Corporation's nine design teams. Coming up in the series: A look at the atlas Communities in Prince George's County, Md. The "Breaking the Mold" series is being underwritten by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The Core Components
The Co-NECT design identifies more than 25 school-reform strategies. Participating schools work with Co-NECT consultants to tailor the strategies to their needs. The fivecore components of the model all Co-NECT schools build around are:
School-based design: Communities plan their schools, including everything from testing methods to teaching strategies. A governance council or a similar body made up of school staff members and community members develops the vision and then monitors progress toward that vision. A community-support board promotes school involvement of families, civic groups, colleges and universities, and businesses--locally and nationwide.
Professional community: Teachers work together in small self-directed teams. They meet regularly to compare daily and long-term plans and to discuss teaching strategies. Staff members are trained to use technology to enhance communications among teachers and to create more learning opportunities for students. There is also a Critical Friends Program through which Co-NECT teachers and administrators visit each other.
Assessment: Students show mastery of challenging school standards through work portfolios. Their progress is assessed based on a set of locally developed "portfolio standards" describing what students should be able to do in key content areas.
Project-based learning: The core curriculum is integrated into projects that last several weeks and involve community resources, such as museums and local experts. Tangible products, such as exhibits, books, and reports, are the primary means of evaluation. Topical seminars and workshops are also used.
Best available technology: Computers are networked schoolwide, in part, so students, teachers, and staff members can share information any time of day. Computers are also linked to a wide range of local and world resources on the Internet. Schools and districts are urged to develop long-term technology plans.
CO-NECT School Sites