Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter says it's the first public middle school in the city to integrate iPads into education. More significantly, said Corosanite, is that the school was "one of the first, if not the very first middle school in the entire country" to entrust the tablets to students (albeit with a voucher signed by their parents) 24/ 7.
From the outset, there were plenty of people who doubted the wisdom of the project. "Even people at Apple warned us that letting the tablets out of the building wasn't a good idea," explained Corosanite. "There was concern the kids might damage or lose them" (at a cost to the school of close to $500 per tablet). "There were worries we wouldn't be able to find appropriate curriculum — we offer majors in creative writing, French, ballet, instrumental music, vocal music, visual arts and innovations in science — and in some instances we have had to create our own iPad content."
But the biggest fear was that students might use the tablets improperly, beyond the school's control.
The good news is that both the hardware and PPAC student body are ending the first pioneering school year with all A's on their collective iPad report card.
Not one of the 250 tablets has been lost "for more than a couple of hours," said science teacher Joe Falcione. Not even one of the special styli that allow art majors to draw directly on the tablet have been misplaced, said art teacher Megan Giampietro. Also, none of the devices has suffered anything more than minor scratch damage. The kids treat them lovingly, almost like one of those "pet egg" adoption projects.
Securing the iPads was priority No. 1 going into the project, said Corosanite. PPAC needed a set of iPad training wheels to keep the students on the straight and narrow, away from potentially damaging websites, predators and distractions like Facebook and Twitter. If the school didn't set up digital barricades, there could be hell to pay from the feds, thanks to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, established to ensure the privacy and safety of children under 13.
After much searching, Corosanite finally found a worthy advocate and partner in Unwired Revolution, a computer management and security software company that had the skills to create a virtual "Geo-Fence" for the students' iPads. "One of PPAC's key requirements is the need to change device usage policies depending on whether the device is on or off campus," explained Unwired Revolution's Amy Hughes. "That capability is not built into the Apple Mobile Device Management protocol. To complicate the issue, the Wi-Fi iPads that PPAC are using do not have GPS chips, making location-based services even more challenging."
Nonetheless, Unwired came up with proprietary mechanisms "that are able to effectively detect whether or not a device is on — premises," explained the developer. Within the perimeter of the South Philly school, tablets connect to a private Wi-Fi network and can access only approved apps and sites not blocked by a fire wall. Then before they go home, students save assignments, unfinished work and any audio/video content that teachers want to share "in a download manager which we can open up and work on at home," said creative-writing major Dominic Santoro. "When we come in the next day, we upload our finished work to the teacher's mailbox."
Not only don't the students need Internet service at home — but they can't use it. Outside the school's "Geo-Fence," the security software disables web browsing and the use of certain preloaded apps, such as the iPad Camera and YouTube. It also blocks access to the App Store.
Unwired Revolution managed to lock the gates without "jail-breaking" (hacking) the Apple operating system. So when Apple makes updates to the iOS, there are no service disruptions.
Art major Joelle Clapier showed me a couple of lovely Asian-themed watercolors she did in preliminary versions on the iPad "while I was at home, just playing around. We use an art program that makes it easy to experiment. You don't need to spend a lot on special materials — like brushes and paints — to see how one tool or another would work out. And if you do something you don't like, making changes is super easy."
When I popped into the dance studio, Brittany DiMatteo was studying her moves on a video prepared by Russian-born ballet master Alexei Charov.
"For group parts, I videotape one of the dancers and send it to everybody's iPad," he explained. "There are 27 of us and so to learn that piece takes a lot of time. This way they can watch and practice at home. It really speeded up rehearsals for our recent concert at the Kimmel Center."
Likewise, vocal students and string majors get to read and take their music home on tablets — sometimes in both visually notated and audible form for accompaniment. "The iPad has made them much more accountable for learning their music," said vocal teacher Rosemary Schneider.
Clearly, PPAC is flourishing with its high tech-learning tools, which also includes smart boards in every classroom and teacher-controlled apps for subjects like spelling and math starting with first-graders. There's a waiting list of more than 1,000 applicants to get into the shiny bright and modern school. Administrators from the Lancaster school district were arriving on a fact-finding tour just as I was leaving. And folks from Apple were coming in to inspect the next day.
Come fall, the school will expand to another building across the street as it grows each grade from three sections to five.
Also starting this fall, the String Theory School will also be taking over the underperforming Frankford-area H.R. Edmunds School.
And it's been given the mandate by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission to open a centrally located 1,400-student-capacity high school, building on PPAC's Arts-plus-STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum model, in the fall of 2013. n
Contact Jonathan Takiff at 215-854-5960 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at philly.com/philly/blogs/gizmo.