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It's technical, really

In the scrappy city of Birmingham, England, educators find unconventional thinking and innovative technology spur a turnaround

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In Birmingham, the second-largest city in England, schools are almost as common as Cadbury eggs. The place where the famous chocolatier first opened up shop is also a city where public education was pioneered in this country in the 1850s.

Today that innovative spirit is being called on once again, as schools deal with what has become an increasingly troubled time in British education. Teacher shortages and undisciplined pupils are among the challenges facing educators at the beginning of the new millennium.

These problems are certainly on the minds of those in Birmingham, a city in the shadow of London and in the twilight of its industrial years. It is the fifth-poorest area in Britain, and the number of immigrants in its million-plus population is rising.

But several schools are proving that unconventional thinking can raise test scores and assist the city in a key goal: to transform itself from a place that didn't need a particularly well-educated workforce, to one that does.

"We are trying to win what H.G. Wells called the race between education and catastrophe," says Tim Brighouse, the city's chief education officer.

For government-funded schools, the mission offers a unique challenge at a time of tight budgets and close scrutiny. And for three schools in particular,each of which has been on the brink of failure or faced uphill battles in the last decade or so,change has come by straying from well-trod paths - and by taking a hard look at how technology can be harnessed to boost student achievement.

All three have students who reflect the character of this sprawling city. At West Heath Junior School, 40 percent of the 352 students, ages 7 to 11, receive free school meals, meaning there is some degree of unemployment in the family. Robin Hood Primary School has 35 percent of its more than 400 students on free meals. And at Selly Park Technology College for Girls, which primarily serves inner-city students, 75 percent of the pupils ages 11 to 16 are ethnic minorities -the majority from Pakistan -and 66 percent don't speak English at home.

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