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David Baxter PhD

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Boynton charter school is state's first to install web cams in class
August 10, 2004
by Karla D. Shores, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

It may as well be

Every teacher's glance, every science project, every passed note, every fidgeting, little body will be fair game for parents' Internet viewing pleasure at a charter school opening Wednesday in Boynton Beach.

Responding to parents' skepticism about what goes on behind classroom doors, DayStar Academy of Excellence, a Palm Beach County elementary school, will become the first school in Florida to allow parents to go on the Web and see what's happening in their child's classroom.

Daycare centers started using the Web during the high-speed Internet craze in the late 1990s to reassure working parents their infants and toddlers were safe. But the idea of enabling parents to zoom in on classrooms is new to South Florida.

"We never really know how a kid acts while they're in school," said parent Sedrick King of Boynton Beach. "Kids might say one thing then the teachers tell you another thing ... Now you can just tune in and watch."

Among their back-to-school forms, parents will find a password similar to an Internet banking account that will take them into the classrooms.

Only a few rooms won't be available -- bathrooms, hallways and administrative offices. But all 20 classrooms and the cafeteria will be available on a secure site a few clicks away from The Webcam will provide video only.

DayStar, 970 N. Seacrest Blvd., is a public school serving 330 students. It was founded by St. John Missionary Baptist Church and is one of 10 charter schools opening in Palm Beach County.

The school's co-founder, the Rev. Lance Chaney, said the Webcam idea came from the school's education committee, which wanted to make involvement convenient, especially for working parents. The technology-based school also is equipped with a computer lab and computers in classrooms.

"We wanted to tear down the walls of division of communication between parents and schools and be part of the process," said Chaney, whose daughter will attend fourth grade at DayStar. "This gives the child and teacher a mindset that Mom and Dad are watching also."

Two schools in Broward and Palm Beach counties run cameras in classrooms, but that's where the similarity ends. The school is considered to be the first in the state to install Webcams in every classroom.

DayStar Academy is unique because it sends live feeds of classroom activities through the Internet. The new Don Estridge High Tech Middle in Boca Raton and the year-old Florida State University Charter School in Pembroke Pines will record teachers for training purposes, but those images will be available only on a monitor in the school's offices.

Principal Janice LaForte said DayStar's Internet footage would show classroom shots of teachers and students but the images won't be recorded.

It's only natural that grade schools would be the next frontier for Web surveillance, said Stuart Cantin, president of Information Consulting Associates Inc. in Jupiter, which outfits small businesses with Webcams. Cantin said Webcams already exist in classrooms because many students' phones have camera features.

"In 10 years they're going to be everywhere," Cantin said.

But it may take much longer before public schools use Webcams more liberally.

"I see the legality issues being the biggest hurdle, putting these cameras in schools where children are," Cantin said. He said that any Web site is prey for hackers.

Chaney assured parents no one would be able to view classrooms without a password and cautioned parents against sharing theirs. Once parents receive their passwords they can access only the classroom their children attend, LaForte said.

The school's governing board used $18,000 of the school's $1.8 million budget to wire the school for Webcams, computer servers, Internet access and wireless laptops. The school spent $3,380 more for 20 cameras. Parents and the church congregation plan to maintain the Web site, which will provide daily classroom shots from the beginning to the end of school.

LaForte said most teachers liked the idea of their school being on a stage for all card-carrying parents to see. LaForte said the Webcam attracted many parents and teachers to the school. The idea repelled one teacher candidate of the 30 LaForte interviewed.

"She said she didn't think that was a good idea and left," LaForte said.

Parent Maureen Harrington, a teacher at Freedom Shores Elementary in Boynton, has mixed feelings about the camera.

As a parent, she loves the idea. In fact, she is not telling her 11-year-old son about the cameras because she wants to get the real scoop on his classroom behavior.

"He'll find out, but for right now let it be a surprise," Harrington said.

But as a teacher, Harrington says the camera could be stifling.

"I don't know if I'd want to be put in that position," she said. "I don't know how I could function knowing there's an eye on me continually. It's as though my boss is sitting in my room watching me eight hours a day."

Harrington said she hopes the camera won't encourage parents to "fish" for problems in a teacher's style, or even worse, encourage teachers to use the camera as a disciplinary tool.

DayStar teacher Sharon Korn sees it another way. A former teacher trainer who is used to being scrutinized, she said the Webcam should put parents at ease with teachers.

"I think teachers are going to think twice before they do something that wouldn't be appropriate or before they give work that's meaningless," Korn said. "Teachers are really going to have to think about how they're teaching."

Parent volunteer Fred Dowdell helped coordinate vendors that wired the school. Dowdell, a letter carrier with a penchant for technology, said he volunteered because he wanted to give working parents an in to their children's education.

"There are some parents who can't actually get involved with their child's schoolwork like they want to," Dowdell said. "This will help parents to actually see what their children are learning."

As LaForte directs workers to move desks and chairs into her classrooms, she notes the placement of the small Webcams in the corner near the ceiling in every classroom. The camera is a one-way mirror into classrooms.

"I would hope that parents take advantage of this, and they won't have to leave their jobs," LaForte said.
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