By: Erica Loret de Mola
iDo, iDare, iDream. These are just some of the words painted onto lime green, blue and hot pink walls at a new school in downtown Miami. With only three teachers and 50 students, this is not your ordinary high school.
iPrep Academy opened its doors to a group of 17 high school juniors this past fall. The first of its kind in the country, iPrep is a school designed to fit the technologically savvy students of the 21st century.
The high school is designed to provide its students with a unique and advanced form of education. From Macbooks to smart boards to an iCafe where students buy their lunch and play video games on a Wii system, the school is outfitted with the latest technology.
Fumero, along with the other four student government representatives, is trying to make the high school experience at this very different school, as normal as possible.
“I wanted to make sure we got the high school experience, so that includes spirit week, homecoming activities, ring ceremonies and we’re working on our winter formal,” said Fumero, who campaigned for her position with colorful posters and sweets.
Many may ask how much it costs for children to attend or how much they have to pay for something as expensive as a MacBook, which typically starts at around $1,000. The answer is nothing. iPrep Academy is a Miami Dade County charter school, which means it’s free for students.
The money to set up the school, located in the district’s administration building at 1500 Biscayne Blvd, came from a combination of federal, county, school board and charter school grants. The computers and bright paint were donated. The campus has full WiFi capability and all the amenities needed for the students’ learning.
The curriculum at iPrep Academy is designed entirely of Honors and Advanced Placement level classes. In order to be admitted, students must have a 2.5 GPA, good conduct, may not have more than 10 unexcused absences from the previous school year and must go through an interview process.
“It’s more challenging than any other school I’ve ever been to,” said 16 year-old student government member, Carlos Diaz. “I’m smart, but I was the kid who liked to slack off in class; here, I can’t afford to do that.”
In the morning, students learn English, history and technology and research in lecture form, face to face with their teachers. English and history are taught in the main room, outfitted with desks and a smart board for each teacher.
English Honors and AP Literature teacher Charlene Ortuno provides her students with online tools like Google docs and Google groups that allow her to edit a paper live in class while students send instant messages with any questions they may have.
“I’ve noticed that the school has developed in them a sense of empathy that I haven’t seen in any of my other classes. There are no walls here, and they are so cognizant of others, they know not to disturb them; and that really prepares them for a working environment where they may not be able to make a lot of noise or have to keep things private,” said Ortuno.
The technology and research class is taught by Laura Hernandez. A former PR and advertising professional, Hernandez was looking for a job that would allow her to spend more time with her family. She teaches the students how to use multiple resources to find information that relates to the topic of the day and how to use the equipment to compose multimedia presentations.
“I come from the marketing and the business world, and this is my first time teaching so I’m trying to bring that to the classroom and show them what the expectations are like out there in the real world,” said Hernandez.
After lunch, students take math and science classes, which are entirely online. Virtual classes are much like college online courses in which students are expected to use their allotted afternoon time to read and complete any assignments for the next day.
Teachers and administrators are always available to speak to students in person or via e-mail.
Students can sit in groups or go off by themselves in a large main space that features brightly-striped carpet and plenty of comfy sitting room. This main room, which doubles as their English and history classes, is equipped with a large flat-screen with the words iTunes Port painted above. Music of their choice plays during this time. They listen to everything from pop to jazz to country.
iRooms or break-out rooms are specially designed for groups of students who prefer a more closed or quieter environment to work in. Designed with soft colors, flat-screen TVs, bean bags and couches, the rooms provide a relaxed and homey environment for students who need a place to study for an upcoming exam or work on a project.
“We’re like a family here,” said 16 year old AP student Michael Samblas. “We all really do get along, there are no fights, no drama, no cliques like in regular high schools, and that lets us interact better with each other and with our teachers.”
Although the school does not have a sports program, students are allowed to form part of other sports teams at their local school. Some have found a way around the lack of athletic programs. Carlos Diaz and some of the other boys go to a local basketball court to play as often as possible.
iPrep is the brainchild of Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who is now principle of the school. On its website, the school emphasizes that it is a “unique learning environment that will encourage inquiry and creativity, and students will gain 21st century skills to help them meet the needs and expectations of an ever changing cultural and economic landscape, while remaining competitive in the workforce.”
One of the ways the school puts this into practice is by placing each student in an internship of their choice. Students attend their internships in the afternoon after they are done with classes. They go two to three times a week and are expected to have their own means of transportation.
“The school doesn’t provide them with transportation so they need to find their own way to get there. A lot of them don’t drive or live far, so for the first time, they’re having to take buses or the metro-rail, and so they’re learning to be more independent as a result,” said Hernandez.
Each teacher is responsible for a group of about 16 or 17 interning students. They make sure each student stays on track and go out several times a month to check on their progress and to make sure the facilities are holding up their end of the bargain. Internships are wide-ranging and varied and give the students an opportunity to see what it’s like in the work force.
“The students get first-hand experience through their internships. We have students that intern at hospitals, with interior designers, in psychological services and some that volunteer for nonprofit organizations like Save Dade,” said Diane Kamentz, supervising administrator at the school.
For the start of the 2010-2011 school year, iPrep accepted 17 students. Now, it has 50 juniors enrolled. Applications for 9th-12th graders are currently being accepted, and the plan is to expand the campus to fit onto four individual floors in the same district building, each grade to a floor.
“We’re not quite sure how we will cater to each individual grade level just yet, but a three-teacher system seems to work out very well for this group. We’ll just have to see how it goes, but so far the experience has been great,” said Kamentz.