Special Schools Tap Technology

Globe and Mail
By Jack Kapica

(December 10, 2002)–Computers may still be regarded as expensive toys or luxury tools for business, but they are becoming a necessity to two groups that could not afford them on their own: grade-school students and the homeless.

A Toronto shelter called Eva’s Phoenix has opened recently to offer extensive and advanced computer training to young homeless people and those labeled “at risk.”

And just outside Toronto, in Newmarket, Linkonlearning Inc. has become the first private on-line elementary school in Ontario to offer children from junior kindergarten to Grade 8 an Internet-based education.

Most of the students at Eva’s Phoenix don’t get to go home after school, manager Harriett Tyrell said, so they live there. The combination shelter and high-tech training centre was created for them “to actualize their potential to lead productive, self-sufficient and healthy lives by providing safe shelter and a range of services,” she said.

The 10 resident students at Eva’s are enjoying the benefits of the latest equipment. They’ve proved to be a computer-savvy bunch, studying sophisticated computer technologies such as the intricacies of networking. The course, offered in partnership with Cisco Systems Canada, is called the Cisco Networking Academy Program and is designed to prepare the students for careers in the new economy.

It’s a four-semester course offering a foundation in networking and information technology fundamentals. Eva’s Phoenix has embraced this long-term plan specifically with a long-range vision in mind.

“Being labeled homeless creates numerous assumptions in people’s minds,” Ms. Tyrell said. “The challenges that these young people have to deal with are daunting, and it’s easy to think that they are bound for failure.”

As proof of the shelter’s success, she points to Allen, the class genius (nicknamed “Bill Gates” for his natural abilities), and Brent, who has just announced he has bought his own computer.

The kids at Linkonlearning in Newmarket may be better off financially than those who go to Eva’s Phoenix, but they’re blazing a trail just the same. The school is designed to appeal to children who are home-schooled, need tutoring in specific courses, or those who need extra help or additional educational challenges. It allows parents to customize their children’s education by enrolling them in the appropriate grade and level in each subject. The approach, founder Janice Frohlich said, is to adapt to children’s learning speeds.

Instead of receiving a report card every few months, Linkonlearning allows parents to look at specific information regarding their child’s development on a day-to-day basis. Being Internet-based, the school is available around the clock, offering more than 10,000 lessons, spread over nine courses and three levels.

Each lesson is aligned with provincial goals and standards. Teachers certified in language arts, spelling, reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, science, history and geography have been assembled to create the curriculum.

Linkonlearning doesn’t fit into any traditional definition of a school, and it got a big boost when the provincial government gave its official approval to the idea.

“I was thrilled when the [Ontario] Ministry of Education recognized us as a private school,” Ms. Frohlich said. “We’re like any other school. We have a principal, teachers write our lessons, and students take tests. The major difference is that the school bell never rings.”

With Linkonlearning, parents can customize their child’s education, adapting the curriculum to children who are struggling or excelling academically.

“Whether a child is enrolled in our school full-time or uses Linkonlearning as a private tutor, parents will gain a greater understanding of their child’s learning strengths and weaknesses,” Ms. Frohlich said.