Hitched up to Wall Street

27th June 1997 at 01:00
At Washington Irving High School in New York's financial district, they're taking advantage of the local fibre-optic jungle to build a futuristic communications system. Vivi Lachs reports

I entered the large brick building and was brusquely asked for my ID by the uniformed security guard behind a desk. To my right young people were filing in, putting their bags through a scanner and walking through a metal detector. My security guard, walkie-talkie strapped to her belt, took me to the fifth floor (of nine) as that was the area she patrolled each day You would be forgiven for thinking that this is a centre for juvenile offenders. This is Washington Irving High School in the centre of Manhattan's business district in New York and pretty standard for the area.

The school, which covers grades 9 to 12 (14 to 18-year-olds), has 2,700 pupils from 80 to 90 different countries speaking 40 or so languages. The majority at present are Dominicans, but the dominant immigrant group seems to change every five years or so because of population movement. The school had a new principal five years ago which brought more stability. He turned the school into "houses" or mini schools of 450 pupils in an attempt to make it more personal.

I was greeted by the warm and affable IT co-ordinator, Ed Susse, who sat in his office surrounded by new computers on desks, obsolete computers in piles on the floor and a multitude of cardboard boxes.

He sighed as I entered, telling me that the distance-learning system I had come to see had been down for the last three days. "No one thinks twice, " he said. "We may not be as critical as a bank, but we have to convince them that school systems are important."

The distance-learning system is a fully equipped room of video conferencing equipment. It was financed by a local telecommunications company that invested $500,000 (Pounds 303,000) in the school, creating this room and a cable infrastructure to provide Internet access. Washington Irving is a "title one" school, which means that 60-70 per cent of the students' families are below the poverty level. It was chosen because of its location, as Ed Susse says, "because we were near the fibre, we became part of this fibre network".

The room consists of three video cameras and microphones. The students sit at two rows of desks with a teacher's lecture desk at the front. This desk controls the cameras that are filming the teacher and students and the views displayed on the large television screens both in front and behind the students. These screens show the link-up class. The system is connected to four other high schools, one junior college and the Lincoln Centre which is a centre for the arts in the Upper West side of Manhattan.

And what do they do with this pricey new system? A number of projects. One is a conversational Spanish class between three schools, using their cultural similarity as an impetus. They run another class in critical thinking, looking at cultural differences between the schools. These projects both seem to use the technology for making links across areas that may not have that connection otherwise. The other school may only be on the other side of New York, but for most inner-city kids that is a large distance for students who may have never left their own area.

Their third project is a grade 12 calculus class which is run at Washington Irving. One of the other schools has too small a class to run, so they join in with the Washington Irving class over satellite. They have had the state controller of the area visiting over the wires. Their final project has been with a school in Mississippi making a newspaper.

All these projects are still in their early days, so Ed Susse is enthusiastic - with qualification. He feels that the projects are beginnings but they need supplementing with electronic mail contact to flesh them out. "I don't know if I'm going to say it's the best thing in the world, but I'm working on it. "

Ed can't talk about the distance-learning projects without integrating them with the Internet projects run at the school. The school has networked five or six rooms, which can be used by different curriculum areas. There are also some rooms with two or three computers linked up to the Internet.

For now, it only covers about half the school as the funding ran out, but Ed is completely sold on the usefulness of the Internet. "When a kid's given a research topic by a teacher, the Internet's the first place they go. Encyclopaedias are a dead-end because the subjects are current issues like AIDS or drugs." The Internet, he argues, gives up-to-date information. He refers again to the critical thinking classes, saying that what the students need to learn is the ability to distinguish what information is true and what is important. He also says that he has seen a difference in use vis a vis girls. "It's the first computer application that doesn't have a sexual bias. The girls are as interested as the boys."

And where to from here? Ed is keen to get pupils publishing on the Internet on subjects that concern them, such as a home page on teens and violence I He suggests that this would be very motivating for them to get it right. "I'd say to them, 'Hey, if you make a spelling mistake, a million people will see it.' " The second area for movement is professional development. Teachers need convincing that they don't need to be experts to use the Internet; they can let the students be the experts. The attitude has already changed with the excitement of the new technology. "I don't have to beg them like I used to," Ed laughs. "When I came, teachers were teaching keyboarding. I convinced them to teach keyboarding within word- processing and now I'm convincing them to use word-processing and the Internet within the curriculum." Communication has moved on, he maintains: "It isn't so much about writing anymore, but about putting together a whole presentation."

Ed Susse is a science teacher who feels he became computer co-ordinator by accident. "I was the first guy who walked in and asked where the computer room was, so they made me the computer co-ordinator."

And he has effected changes. Most teachers still teach traditionally with desks in rows. "I think architecture affects education," he says. He rearranged rooms so that computers were facing the walls or other computers rather than the teacher. He is carpeting some rooms to make them places where pupils really want to go. "Come back in six months," he tells me as we shake hands. "You won't recognise us."

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