When schools are closed, 'ischool' is open

When winter weather forces schools to close, kids generally expect to sleep in, kick back, and forget classroom chores for a while.

Nowadays, even snow days aren't the same.

While Fayette County schools were shut down by the recent ice storm, students in Elise Perry's Advanced Placement World History classes at Henry Clay High School kept right on working and learning — from home.

Each day, students logged onto an Internet-based system called "ischool," where they picked up and completed assignments that Perry posted for them. The youngsters kept up with their work while school was out and returned to classes last week without having missed a lesson.

Equally notable is the fact that the ischool system was put together by Fayette County Public Schools students.

Perry, who began seriously using ischool in her two AP history classes this year, said the "virtual classroom" system has been particularly helpful at keeping her students on track for the AP tests they will have to take come spring.

"They're national tests, and the date doesn't change just because we have snow days," she said. "We have to get through the material, no matter what the weather does."

So, when the weather started turning cold late last year, Perry warned her students that her class stops for nothing.

"It's a standing instruction that if we don't have school, there will be an assignment posted," she said.

Assignments might range from completing activities based on previous classwork to reading new material for discussion when school reopens.

Perry said that despite "a few grumbles," her students soon got into the spirit of the thing.

"You have some who are really gung-ho and log on every day just to check," she said. "Then some others wait until after we've had a day off and I have to tell them, 'OK, you have an assignment and it's due.' But they have pretty much jumped on board."

One of Perry's students, sophomore Haley Blake, said ischool helped her stay familiar with class material that she otherwise might have forgotten during the long ice-storm break.

"I get on it probably every other day or so," Haley said. "It's kind of like extra homework; you get on and you have an assignment and it helps refresh your memory. I think it really helps."

Perry did have to make allowances for students who lost power during the ice storm and couldn't get online. She lost power herself at one point, and had to go to her mother-in-law's home to post assignments.

"Usually, I get up at about 6 o'clock and, if there is no school that day, I post an assignment," she explained. "If they call off school the night before, I'll post the assignment that night so I don't have to get up so early."

She says she also makes allowances for students who don't have home computers and can't pick up assignments on ischool.

The whole ischool system was established a few years ago by some computer-savvy students at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. As a starting point, they used "Moodle," a generic platform that is available free on the Internet, said Jim Adams, who coordinates the Student Technology Leadership Program at Dunbar.

"You take Moodle and develop it for your own needs," Adams said. "The students kind of customized it so that our teachers could use it, and it started as an in-house project for Dunbar."

Greg Drake, education technology director for the Fayette County Public Schools, heard about the Dunbar project and decided to make ischool available to the whole school district.

It's essentially a case of the school system catching up with kids' technology, Drake said.

Perry said several AP teachers at Henry Clay use ischool, though Drake said he isn't sure how many teachers are using it district-wide. The number, however, seems likely to grow.

Posting assignments for snow days is only one of ischool's many potential uses, he said.

"It's just as though students were in the classroom, except that part of the course is done virtually," he said.