'School of the Future' Promises Next-Generation Education

Imagine a school of the future, where students use laptops in a wireless building and teachers customize lessons according to each one's ability. The building itself is entirely environmentally friendly, and all administrative processes are efficiently handled with the latest technology.

In Philadelphia, the future is set to begin in September 2006.

The School of the Future, a partnership with Microsoft, is being built in West Philadelphia for about 800 high school students. The approximately $63 million facility is being funded by the School District of Philadelphia's capital program, with technical assistance provided by Microsoft's Partners in Learning initiative.

Half of the students will come from the West Philadelphia region, the rest from other parts of the city, said Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of the district. A lottery will be held if applicants exceed the amount of openings, but the drawing will be random, not based on academic achievement.

"We didn't want it to be an elite magnet school," Vallas said. "If you're going to do this high school for the future and see how technology can help instruction and student achievement, turning it into a select-enrollment school, choosing the best and brightest, would rig the experiment so to speak."

Improving Instruction, Adding Resources

From Microsoft's perspective, the goal is to create a school where learning is "more continuous, more relevant and more adaptive," said academic program manager Mary Cullinane.

She said the school will "break down the dependency on time and place" by sharing resources at school and at students' homes, as well as by utilizing such sites as the nearby Philadelphia Zoo, Philadelphia Museum of Art and the city's historic district to bring learning to life.

Vallas said he hopes the school will "in effect become an R&D center for the district as a whole."

"The object was to use technology in a way to do three things: improve the quality of instruction; two, provide the students with the supplements they would need to enhance student achievement; and three, improve communications between the teacher and what's happening in the classroom and the parent or guardian," Vallas said. "That's been the goal of the district."

Classrooms will be outfitted with the latest in interactive technology. Out are chalkboards. Instead, rooms will have smartboards, which combine the functions of a computer, projector and whiteboard.

And no more lugging around a dozen textbooks. The smartboards will be linked to resources from 1,700 different entities, including instructional materials from the Smithsonian Institution, National Geographic and the History Channel.

"The use of textbooks is in decline," Vallas said. "We are going to continue to reduce our reliance on textbooks for more of a textbook-free or textbook-less classroom. I envision the day when textbooks are a rarity, textbooks are an exception rather than the rule."

Gone, too, will be the days of kids pretending they have no homework. Excuses will be short-circuited by an ongoing parent-teacher dialogue carried out through parental access to classroom curriculum. "Teachers can write tomorrow's assignment on a smartboard, and parents can access that assignment on a home computer," Vallas said.

But the use of technology does not mean that instructors will be irrelevant. Student achievement will be assessed by teachers every six weeks, allowing teachers to make adjustments for those who are falling behind and those who need greater stimulus.

Teachers will "learn about that student then address their individual needs through technology and different solutions being developed by the school," Cullinane said.

"I've heard for years … the concern that there's some agenda to try to limit the role of teacher in the classroom, and truly, with technology, the role of teacher is more important than ever," she said. "That teacher needs to assess the student … in a way that is guided and a way that is supportive. That's hard work. That's something that teachers are really going to have a great opportunity to truly impact how far a kid can go in their classroom."

A Green Building

The school building itself will earn "Gold LEED Certification," meaning it meets certain environmental requirements with a holistic approach as defined by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Cullinane said features will include a system that catches rainwater and repurposes it for use in toilets, a "green" roof that aids in energy conservation and panels within windows to capture light as energy. Room settings will adjust based on natural light, oxygen levels in classrooms will be monitored, and sensors will turn the lights on and off based on when people are inside.

Another big change will be in the auditorium, which Cullinane said is historically the most expensive school space because it is the largest and is used the least. Instead, a "performance center" will be built that can be converted into smaller classrooms.

The district also will implement Microsoft technology to manage its human resources department and other aspects of operations, which will expand to the rest of the district, Vallas said.

The School of the Future is part of a $1.5 billion capital construction plan that includes five new high schools, four new elementary schools and additions and improvements to other school buildings in Philadelphia, to be completed by 2008. Schools will have more green space, as well as new labs, libraries, classrooms and sports facilities.

The district also is seeking corporate sponsors for the School of the Future building itself and areas inside. Officials hope to raise between $10 million and $15 million as an endowment in which interest would cover things like additional teachers or sending kids to conferences and other extracurricular activities.

Those working on the project hope to create a model school that can be replicated throughout the school district, as well as around the world.

"It's not about each kid having the latest bells and whistles," said Ellen Savitz, chief development officer for the district, adding, "The whole idea is these kids will see their computers as very cool, of course, but as a tool to be used to be responsible for their own learning."

The school will include a welcome center "because we expect the world to come visit," Savitz said, adding that representatives from 30 countries have expressed interest in the School of the Future.

Cullinane said Microsoft would like to develop best practices to help other districts create their own schools of the future, where education innovation is paramount and can be aided by the latest tools.

"Can technology help? In some instances, absolutely," she said. "But that's not the goal here. We believe that technology is a piece of that pie."