Web exchange links Fresno, Philly students

Four girls from one of Fresno's newest charter high schools crowded around a computer monitor Thursday and talked about their lives with students nearly 3,000 miles away in Philadelphia.

Monserrat Martinez, Jessica Ocaranza, Alondra Cruz and Itzel Gomez -- all 14 -- talked about life in Fresno and learning to speak English after moving here from Mexico.

On the other end were 14 Philadelphia Spanish-class students huddled around their teachers, including instructor and Fresno native Juan Gabriel Sanchez. They asked the Fresno students about Mexican food and what language they speak at home. "Are the boys at your school cute?" asked one Philadelphia girl, to an eruption of giggles on both ends.

The exchange was part of a video conference experience that is becoming more common in schools as laptops and other hi-tech devices become standard in many classrooms.

The dialogue was set up by Dave Childers, principal at ACEL-Fresno Charter High School. ACEL stands for Academy for Civic and Entrepreneurial Leadership. It opened this year with 53 freshmen inside a central Fresno Boys & Girls Club. Most of the students are Hispanic, many born in Mexico. Technology in the classroom is part of the school curriculum.

Childers visited the Science and Leadership Academy in Philadelphia last year when he learned students at the public magnet school had been studying about the Valley, farm labor leader Cesar Chavez and local author Gary Soto. He and Philadelphia teacher Melanie Manuel promised then that they would connect their students when ACEL opened and begin a cross-country dialogue.

The connection took place Thursday using Skype, a free video-conferencing program, and will continue today using Apple's iChat.

"It's pretty special," Childers said, because the students rarely are asked about their background. "This gave the kids an opportunity to celebrate their cultural background."

The Philadelphia students wanted to know where the students were born, how they adapted to life in America. "The hardest thing was the language," said Alondra Cruz, who left Mexico when she was 3.

Mike Lawrence, executive director of Computer-Using Educators in Walnut Creek, praised the Fresno-Philadelphia video-conference exchange. "I'd like to see it happen more often," he said.

Computer-Using Educators helps teachers incorporate new technology into school curricula. The professional association has about 5,000 members in California and Nevada; ACEL's Childers is a past president of the local chapter.

"The idea that education is confined to the four walls of a classroom is very limiting," Lawrence said. Computer technology can bring students together and engage them with students and other cultures across the nation and globe, he said. "When they are more engaged, they are learning at a faster pace."

But Lawrence said some schools have backed away from using the modern technology because of concerns about safety and security. Many school systems ban video conference programs out of concerns that students might connect with the wrong type of people and schools will be held liable.

This hasn't been a problem at ACEL, where staff has closely monitored the video conferencing.

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