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District Profile

An Eye for Design

Students in Miami-Dade's Web design academy get a feel for real-world project management and, at the same time, help area nonprofits.

Do the Right Thing, a Miami Police Department-sponsored organization that rewards students for positive behavior, had done its own thing but was in search of more.

Using basic software, the nonprofit's staff had been grappling this fall with creating a Web page they liked. Executive Director Jodi Atkison says she was hoping for a more dynamic, sophisticated look.

Along came some tech-savvy teens. "I just knew that if we handed this over to some kids who know so much more about computers than we do, they'd create something really cool," Atkison says.

"We are using taxpayers' dollars to teach kids something, and as a bonus, they are able to give back to community." -Rick Reece, educational specialist, instructional technology department

The students didn't disappoint. "They were really nice, eager to do something," she says. "We first met them in January. We weren't in a big rush. Within two weeks we had three home pages, all really good. They are really on top of it. They don't let it fall between the cracks."

And all for a school project. The students are enrolled in the M-DCPS Apple Web Design Academy at Booker T. Washington High School, one of 11 district sites with the program.

Each day, nearly 650 high school students in the nation's fourth largest district spend one class period using sophisticated software to help organizations in the region get their messages out on the Internet. Now in its second year, the program was co-developed by Apple Computer, Macromedia and district technology specialists. It's been so successful that other districts are looking to it as a model for similar programs.

The academy has helped the embattled district--now run by a state-appointed board--polish its image in the community while enabling students to polish their computer graphics skills.

Creative problem solving

Rick Reece, educational specialist for the district's instructional technology department, says that technology educators approached Apple for help in developing a creative program to teach students Web design.

Apple then partnered with Macromedia and developed a curriculum to teach students HTML programming and how to use Macromedia's Dreamweaver, Flash and Fireworks software. Last January, the district spent about $700,000 to develop a 22-station computer lab (available to all students during the day) at each academy site. Then Macromedia helped train technology teachers to use its software.

Apple, meanwhile, has begun marketing the Web design curriculum and setting up professional development training sessions across the country. The company's Education Marketing Director, Karen Cator, is impressed by what she's seen with the program. "It is kind of astonishing, the level of capability the students have shown," she says.

The main hurdle among other districts interested in the academy is the money needed for the computer technology and the instructional time needed per day for the class, Cator explains.

Miami-Dade took advantage of grant money to purchase the necessary equipment, Reece says, acknowledging that the downturn in the economy caused by the Sept. 11 attacks and the war would probably have prevented the school from pursuing the program now. He says the program's chief selling point is its focus on creating real Web sites for nonprofit community groups.

At your service

So far, academy students have worked with 25 nonprofit agencies in the Miami area and launched half a dozen Web sites, saving the groups an estimated $250,000 in design costs. "We are using taxpayers' dollars to teach kids something, and as a bonus, they are able to give back to community," Reece says.

Superintendent Merrett Stierheim says the program is a positive force in the region. "The school district's Web design academies are a dynamic way that our school district can provide an impetus to help our community move forward. Our students learn by taking on responsibilities with real-world clients. Community businesses benefit from our students' Web design skills," he says.

Modeled after a design class at San Francisco State University, Stierheim explains that the district offers the course as an elective for juniors and seniors with proficiency in computers. Academy graduates are eligible to take a Web certification test administered by the World Organization of Webmasters.

The course begins with several weeks of basic HTML programming. Then students go on to learn software such as Fireworks to enhance Web sites. Finally, they're broken up into teams and assigned to a community group seeking help building a Web site.

Experience is the best teacher

Miami-Dade technology educators say the academy teaches how to work in groups, how to meet deadlines and how to communicate professionally with outside organizations.

"It really teaches kids a lot about real work situations," says David Taylor, technology educator for Coral Gables Senior High School. "It teaches them critical thinking, having to go to concrete from abstract. It teaches them how to think in really practical ways."

Students in Taylor's class worked on Web sites for Foster Care Review and Catholic Charities last year. This year the students are continuing the design for Catholic Charities and also working on sites for American Dance Alliance and the Mike Lowell Foundation, started by the Marlins third baseman who survived testicular cancer.

Taylor says the design academy has helped shape a positive image for the district, which is engulfed in controversy about squandered construction budgets and crumbling classrooms. Community members involved in the program wind up impressed, with both the student work and with the district itself, he says. "Anytime you actually get involved with real kids in real situations ... the experience is totally different than what you see on news reports."

Atkison, who found out about the Web design academy when she requested linking the district's Web site to Do the Right Thing's site, says the academy seems to empower students. "This creative course is unique and gets them interested in coming to school," she adds. "Anything dealing with design and being creative certainly will inspire some kids who are not talented in other areas."

Reece says the academy has attracted many borderline students. One student at Miami Norland Senior High School was a gang member and constant truant before taking the class. Once she started the design academy, she rarely missed a session. In fact, police used to come looking for her at the academy because they knew they could find her there. She eventually became so involved that she started leading projects and helping other students.

"This year, she left the gang behind," Reece says. "She's got her sights on a future career in Web design and is planning to go into the Army to study communications."

Branching out on their own

Many academy students have become so proficient in Web design that they've created their own Web sites or started designing professionally, teachers say.

"A brand new student [of mine] from Kansas ... has created four Web sites already and taught himself HTML," says Shelly Jordan, a graphic arts and Web page instructor at Booker T. Washington. "I think the students enjoy creating animation and scanning images and adding their own color. If they see somebody do something new, they say, 'teach me how to do that.' "

Booker Washington senior Wendy Pichinte, 18, who had previously taken networking classes, says the toughest part of the class was learning HTML coding, which can be dry and cumbersome. Now she's learning how to use software such as Dreamweaver. "Traditional classes can get boring," she says. "At [the academy] at least you get creative. You start playing with your imagination and what you can do with Web pages."

Pichinte is working on a Web site for United People Ministry, an AIDS education group. "I'm learning a lot as I go. I probably will improve a lot and learn other tricks that you don't really learn in books," she says. She's also hoping to earn extra money designing Web sites while in college, where she wants to major in law and continue her studies in computer technology.

Technology educators at Miami-Dade say they hope to expand the program by offering more Web design classes and including sophisticated software programs like streaming video. Reece also hopes to create an internship program through the academy.

"In my 29 years with the district, I've had the chance to be involved in really fun things,'' Reece says. "But so far, this takes the cake."

Fran Silverman is a freelance writer based in Norwalk, Conn.