- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, a 17-year-old private charity, supports and develops programs in education and human services.

One of its nonprofit programs, Schwab Learning, focuses on helping children with learning and attention problems succeed in life and to help their parents, too.

The program’s latest cyber-endeavor offers tweens a colorful, interactive community in which to understand their strengths and explore their creativity.

SparkTop.org

Site address: www.sparktop.org

Creator: Schwab Learning, a nonprofit program of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, is based in San Mateo, Calif.

Creator quotable: “We created SparkTop.org to help 8- to 12-year-old kids with learning disabilities understand that they are just as smart as other kids, have unique strengths and talents, and absolutely can succeed in life in spite of their challenges with learning,” says Jodell Seagrave, managing director of Schwab Learning.

“The 15 percent of kids in America who struggle because of [learning disabilities] are known to be at increased odds for engaging in risky behaviors, and our Web site aims to help reduce these statistics.”

Word from the Webwise: Working from the theory that “no two brains spark alike,” animated modules present quick-paced activities to capture a modern, multitasking child’s attention through sections incorporating games, cartoons, music, art, narrated lessons and plenty of wacky sound effects.

Visitors who register can participate in all parts of the site. They can stylize their avatars in message boards, have a place to store art creations and converse more freely with other members of the site. Those who wish to be labeled simply as “guest” still have plenty to enjoy under the banners of Explore, Create and Connect.

Explore overwhelms with media and knowledge, as especially relevant modules include DBTV, featuring Dr. Bart, a character based on Bart Pisha, an expert on learning disabilities. The visitor clicks on the Blurb O’Matic icon, and Dr. Bart spins around and stops on one of six programs that offer tips on memory, studying and organizing thoughts.

The area also contains Studio 24/7, where a trio of children answer questions on learning disabilities; Fame Brain, which highlights famous people and their struggles with comprehension; and Last Bell, offering audio snippets of site members who talk about what they enjoy doing after school.

Create turns a visitor’s desktop into a robust art program that offers projects such as painting, mixing music, manipulating photographs (including one from a visitor’s hard drive), recording voices and writing. Visual masterpieces can be printed out or saved to a member’s My Stuff area.

Finally, Connect houses the community component of the site. It allows visitors to interact with SparkTop pals and is highlighted by an awesome multiplayer trivia game called 2 Cubed. Players from around the world can compete in brain exercises as they answer multiple-choice questions on a variety of subjects to capture three cubes in a row, a la tic-tack-toe, to collect points.

Ease of use: The site works in PC and Mac environments and performs best with a high-speed Internet connection within Internet Explorer browser version 5.1.6 or higher. It requires the Macromedia Flash Player 7 plug-in and Java (version 1.3.1.07 or greater) for Windows-specific users.

Don’t miss: One of my favorite Web sites, BrainPop (www.brainpop.com), enhances SparkTop by contributing some of its slick cartoons and quizzes that concentrate on explaining specific learning and school difficulties. With the help of hosts Tim and Moby the Robot, children can see four-minute presentations on dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bullying and test preparation.

Family activity: The site is filled with practical tips and strategies to help visitors with social situations, teacher interactions, doing homework and fitting in with their peers — which should make life away from the computer a bit more manageable.

Cyber-sitter synopsis: SparkTop.org provides a cyber-oasis of fun that easily rivals educational software packages found on store shelves. Parents initially will want to join their children online to feel comfortable with the site’s community components.

Overall grade: A

Remember: The information on the Internet is constantly changing. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it’s accurate and updated. Health sites, for example, should be discussed with your own physician.

Have a cool site for the family? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message ([email protected]).

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