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A Queens school finds opportunity in Google's education apps

Principals want to chart school expenditures? There’s a Google App for that. Teachers want to collaborate on curriculum? Students want to vote on the colors of their cap and gown? There are Google Apps for that, too.

The Academy for Careers in Television and Film is making use of all of them. Founding principal Mark Dunetz has Google-fied the school, using Google Apps for Education to create shared, streamlined systems that aggregate information and smooth operations.

When Dunetz started ACTVF in 2008, he said he faced a challenge shared by most non-selective high schools: “You accept in a range of students based on their interest in the program, who might or might not have had success in school.”

His solution to guarantee their success was to implement a slew of organizational systems to make the school “responsive and efficient” to students’ needs. The first class of students will graduate this year, and Dunetz projects a graduation rate over 90 percent – a rarity for a non-selective school.

“It would be inconceivable to do the work we’re doing, as successfully as we’re doing it, without the systems that we have in place,” he said when I visited the school last week.

The starting point for ACTVF was the free suite of Google Apps for Education, which includes Google Mail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, and Google Sites. Dunetz leaned on the toolkit to create a shared document for staff to track parent outreach. But then the possibilities exploded.

“Once you get into it, you know what’s possible,” Dunetz said. “You start to really see everywhere the ways you’re wasting time doing things in an inefficient matter.”

Now, administrators, teachers, and students — who have different levels of access to the tools — use it for a large chunk of their managing, teaching, and learning.

New York State has an agreement with Google that allows teachers to get special Apps for Education training. But for the most part, enterprising educators such as Dunetz find ways to stretch the usages of the free suite on their own. Only when he can’t wrangle the system to match the school’s needs does Dunetz reach out to Google’s tech help.

“Every day I learn of a new way a teacher is using a tool in a way I didn’t think of,” said Jaime Casap, the Senior “Education Evangelist” on the Google Apps for Education team. He said he has seen teachers using Google Forms to replace paper reading logs and he’s seen them using Google Docs to chart student behavior from one class to the next.

“We love problem-solving,” he said, adding that Google’s engineers are responsive to the requests they receive and added 175 new features in 2011 alone. Casap sees the most promise for development in the Google Apps Marketplace, where third-party developers will be able to bring their expertise to the table.

With a few clicks, Dunetz can pull up detailed data about a single student or create a variety of charts and graphs to get sweeping, generalized views of his school: Pie charts of school spending, bar graphs of student lateness, line graphs tracking the frequency of teacher observations.

Teachers can also see more detailed trends, in shared Google Docs that track attendance, lateness, and grades. And Google Calendar makes scheduling and programming transparent and allows teachers to share materials. For example, the advisory curriculum is layered onto a shared calendar so when advisors select a date, they can immediately download all of the documents they’ll need to carry out the day’s lesson.

The apps also offer extra academic and emotional support for students. When a student is removed from class, the faculty member he reports to enters a note into a form that automatically sends an alert email to that student’s advisor and to the school social worker.

After school last week, Global Studies teacher Joel Kirkhart tutored a group of students for the Regents exam by having them revise essays on Google Docs. Kirkhart said he is still getting used to responding to student work directly on Google Docs but is finding that the suite makes it easier for him to track the revision process, communicate with colleagues, and keep tabs on students.

But he said having a constantly updated compendium of student and school data could be overwhelming sometimes.

“The volume of information that you get, the data that you have per kid, the trackable information — it allows you a huge amount of insight,” he said. But he added, “But are there enough hours in the day?”

Abraham Rodriguez, a junior, said that students make use of their school Gmail accounts to communicate with teachers and classmates and to keep on top of their grades. Sstudents receive an automated email each time their teachers update their virtual grade books.

Rodriguez said without the cloud, “people would start to fall back on their classwork; they wouldn’t know how to catch up in classes.”

Dunetz said that he had expected the students to feel oppressed by the system, given that teachers and administrators were collecting so much information on them. However, he’s noticed that most students, like Rodriguez, appreciate the structure.

“It creates this sense for the students that they’re known in really profound ways by the people working with them and supporting them,” he said.

But Dunetz cautioned that making use of Google’s Apps for Education isn’t a quick fix for a school with communication problems. In fact, he said, the apps are only as efficient as their users know how to make them.

“There is nothing wholesale to share,” Dunetz said. “What we have here is a set of tools that are extremely flexible — and free —that we are utilizing in creative ways.”

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