'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.

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