The Ralph Bunche Computer Mini-School is a school-within-a-school consisting of eight classes, spanning grades 4-6. The Computer Mini-School occupies the fourth floor of a grade 3-6 elementary school located in Harlem, not far from Columbia University. Most of the students come from a neighboring public housing project. The school building, constructed in 1925, shows many signs of age and decay on the outside and in the corridors, but large windows and fresh coats of paint make the classrooms themselves quite cheerful. Hallways are lined with colorful displays of children's artwork and writing. The mini-school serves 171 of the school's 713 students. Demographic data are not maintained separately for the mini-school, but in general its composition reflects that of the school as a whole: 77% of the school's population is eligible for free or reduced lunch; 6% were designated LEP; and 8% were classified as special education in 1992-93. Seventy-one percent of the students are African American; 27% are Hispanic; 1% Asian/Pacific Islander; and less than 1% Caucasian, Non-Hispanic and Native American. It is estimated that less than 10% of the students have access to computers at home.
In 1987, the computer teacher and several others at Ralph Bunche began working with the Bank Street College of Education on a project called Earth Lab. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Earth Lab project supported collaborative science investigations by elementary and middle school students with curriculum materials and a network designed to support long-term student projects. The project funding enabled the school to obtain additional computers and set up a local area network with a file server so that students could maintain their project work in special folders or "workspaces" set up for group activities. Once they became accustomed to using the network in this way to support Earth Lab collaborations, the students and teachers began setting up folders for other school activities, such as the school newspaper.
In 1990, Ralph Bunche's computer teacher (Paul Reese) and six classroom teachers asked the administration for permission to set up a mini-school to give students a more coherent program, reduce class size, and take advantage of the computer network technology. The teachers agreed to give up their prep periods in return for increased authority over the design of their instructional program and smaller class size (20 students vs. 32 in regular classes). In the fall of 1990, the Computer Mini-School opened. In 1992-93, two more classes were added to the mini-school.
The most striking features of the Mini-School program are extensive access to network and software tools to support communication and research and the smaller, more coherent classes, mostly co-located on a single floor. In contrast to the rest of the school where student movement is strictly controlled, mini-school students move back and forth between their regular classes and the Computer Room, where they go to conduct research and work on assignments for their classes. Each mini-school student has an electronic mail account, and students use them to communicate with each other and with distant "pen" pals and individuals who can help them with their research (e.g., students studying Ireland contacted a university student in Dublin for a first-hand report of the kinds of jobs and sports interests prevalent in that country).
Each mini-school classroom is scheduled into the computer lab for two 1-hour periods weekly. These whole-class sessions are planned with the teacher to integrate the technology into the ongoing curriculum. The computer teacher takes primary responsibility for instruction, with the classroom teacher assisting and overseeing the management of the class. Computer classes often begin with a brief period of instruction, followed by individual or collaborative student work at the computers. For tasks that involve a series of new procedures, students are given worksheets providing step-by-step instructions, with spaces for the instructor to "sign off" indicating that the student has completed each step correctly.
Students learn to use the Internet to gather information from outside resources when conducting research. During our site visit, students studying other countries for a multicultural festival accessed the Trinity University (Dublin) home page, sent e-mail to Irish university students, and searched an on-line CIA data base for information about Brazil.
The Computer Room is kept open from 8am to 6pm daily. In addition to the two hours in which their entire class is scheduled into the Computer Room and drop-in opportunities during class time, approximately half the students come regularly during recess or before and after school. During these self-selected times in the Computer Room, some students work on assignments, while others correspond with network "pen" pals, or play with game-like software. Teachers too come into the room to use the computer resources. After-school activities we observed included a sixth-grade non-mini-school teacher using software to produce a Kenya banner for the multicultural festival; a sixth-grade mini-school teacher working with three students on a menu for the Mexican food they would serve at the same festival; three students showing their fourth-grade teacher how to get into her electronic mail on the network (a big breakthrough for this "technophobe"); two fifth-grade girls working independently on their country reports on Ireland; and a sixth-grade teacher consulting with the computer coordinator about whether could she obtain the weather from all their different countries on the day of the festival.
The computer teacher manages the mini-school's technology and educational applications. He makes it a point not to push teachers, yet articulation between the Computer Room and regular classrooms could be enhanced if more teachers were interested and had confidence in applications other than word processing. Lack of time for in-service training on instructional uses of technology is a major impediment. The mini-school teachers do not have prep periods, and the few in-service days available to them are mostly taken up with other activities.
Although data have not been maintained and analyzed systematically, a special analysis performed by Earth Lab researchers after the mini-school's first year concluded that mini-school students perform better than their peers in the rest of the school on standardized tests, particularly in math. A classroom teacher asserted that LOGO activities helped her students develop better understandings of mathematical concepts and procedural, logical thinking. The principal pointed out that the Computer Mini-School students typically do well in inter-school competitions, such as poetry contests and science fairs. It is clear that many of the students are proficient with basic tool applications; some have developed more sophisticated skills corresponding to their areas of interest. Many students take pride in the fact that they are more proficient in the use of technology than most adults.
425 W. 123rd Street
New York, NY 10027
Contact: Paul Reese
T: (212) 865-4351
F: (212) 865-4351