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City preparing to open a high school with no walls of its own

New York is quietly preparing to open another “Silicon Alley” high school — this time inside some of the informal offices that are turning the city into a haven for technology entrepreneurs.

The Department of Education is currently planning a six-year high school called iZone Academy that would open in 2014 without a space of its own. The school would operate out of multiple sites in “co-working space” with start-ups, according to internal flyers and Next Generation Learning, which has given the Department of Education’s private fundraising arm $100,000 to plan iZone Academy.

According to the grant announcement, a goal is to “disrupt the systemic structures of age-based cohorts, scheduling, space, grading policies, and more” with an emphasis on blended learning, which combines online and face-to-face teaching. The proposal indicates that the school would focus on outside work experience and business partnerships, like P-TECH’s with IBM.

“Removing the barrier of a single building and the standard use of time will open opportunities for authentic learning,” one document says.

Much about the model remains unclear, though. How would hundreds of students share space and projects with professionals? Who would the shared space belong to? What would happen to non-academic experiences high schools typically provide, such as sports or lunch periods? And, how (and how much) would students interact with teachers?

The city declined to explain whether the school, which would open with 100 students and expand to 400, could operate without its own space or how it would meet state requirements for time spent in class. A spokesperson for the Department of Education said the school will go through the traditional new-school approval process and confirmed that a principal has not yet been chosen.

Along with packed Panel for Educational Policy meeting schedules, the school is another indication that the city’s school-creation efforts aren’t slowing down as Mayor Bloomberg’s term nears its end.

Instead, the school would join one of Bloomberg’s trademark education initiatives, the Innovation Zone, which is the umbrella term for the city’s efforts to increase technology and personalization in schools. By 2014, more than 400 schools will be iZone schools, receiving additional technology and support for online classes. A set of those are part of the iZone 360 initiative, through which a school’s curriculum, schedules, and budget are revamped to focus on personalized learning.

iZone Academy is being billed as a chance to combine components of programs that have been tested in iZone schools in recent years into a cohesive, online learning-focused school. At a number of iZone schools such as Olympus Academy, a transfer school with an online-learning model, students accumulate credits at their own pace. At City-as-School, another transfer school, students complete a series of internships that take up a big chunk of their school time.

But operating without a set space would still be an experiment, and principals have not universally found online learning to be an effective tool.

Alisa Berger, who served as the founding principal of NYC iSchool, an iZone school that emphasized online learning, said a school like iZone Academy should be looked at as just one of hundreds of options for high school students.

“With the system as large as the DOE, we can afford to have alternative models that meet the needs of only a small group of kids,” she said. “It isn’t a model that will be successful every kid, but [it] will be for a group of kids. We should be piloting those.”

The iZone’s expansion has been made possible because the State Education Department has relaxed rules about “seat time,” or how much time students need to spend in a traditional classroom, to receive credit for online and blended-learning classes. Removing those requirements altogether has been a focus of online-learning proponents nationally.

Tom Vander Ark, the former Gates Foundation education director and an online learning proponent, said he doesn’t see iZone Academy having issues complying. “If a school provides a thoughtful proposal, it’s not too hard” to get a waiver for certain requirements, he said.

iZone officials were soliciting applications for a student representative and parent coordinator for a design team for the school last week (on a website that has since been password-protected), indicating that many details are still being worked out.

And alhough the city is staying quiet about the school, one of the two iZone officials heading the school design team tweeted what’s likely to become a central credo of the school on Monday:

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