Have you ever had an idea so good that you know if you can just tell the right person, they'll agree and it will happen? That, more or less, was the script when the CEO of the School District of Philadelphia, Paul Vallas, met with Microsoft more than a year ago.
Vallas asked if Microsoft would consider building a school with the district. Microsoft said maybe, and 15 months later, ground has been broken. In two years, Philadelphia will unveil what is expected to be the "most unique educational structure in the world," according to Philadelphia School Reform Commission Chair James E. Nevels.
"There was the whole idea of answering the question, 'What if,' " says Mary Cullinane, Microsoft Partners in Learning program manager. "This was a great opportunity to demonstrate public-private partnerships. ... We really want to raise the bar as to what's expected as the norm for education."
What the partners have come up with so far is a $46 million high school that will serve 750 children. Dubbed the "School of the Future," its goal is at once both simple and complicated. The simple part is that the school will aim to create a replicable model for improved instructional development through the use of technology. The hard part will be translating that sentence into a living and breathing school.
With ground recently broken, a few key tenets have been decided, says Cullinane. The school will feature one-to-one computing, the building will be completely wireless, and there will be a broadband school-to-home connection. Students will also be able to use "smartcards" for everything from the cafeteria to the interactive learning center being built in the middle of the school.
While the paperless environment being created may seem like a revelation, the biggest change is the school--and its curriculum--are being designed around research and development.
Because teachers and administrators will have up-to-date access to students' assessments, in effect a "digital dashboard," both partners hope to embed research and development methods into the daily curriculum, Cullinane says.
A less trumpeted part of the project offers the district some real back-office help. Web-based procurement and online tools to track human resources and payroll management could save the district a significant amount of money, both sides say.
Cullinane points out that while both Microsoft and the district employ a large number of employees, Microsoft's cost of maintaining its workers is lower than Philadelphia's. "This is a huge opportunity to see how they're managing their finance and their space," Cullinane says. "It's a great opportunity to modernize the back-office.
In addition to the promise of being chock-full of technological devices, the high school promises some high-tech design features as well.
The building will be eco-friendly, using natural lighting, water conservation and recycling. The structure is being built in accordance with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System. Cabinets will be made from the trees that were cleared to make room for the school.
One of the typical school space problems, having a big auditorium that can fit the whole school but is rarely used, was addressed by architects, Cullinane says. The back of the auditorium will have seats on hydraulics. These seats can turn around to create a smaller classroom that can be used frequently.
A Curriculum Working Committee comprised of district members, Microsoft workers, members of the community and international education experts will hash out exactly how the school runs.
As for deciding which devices make the cut, Cullinane says, "Everybody and their brother are saying they have the best of the best. ... Research and development will be a key component [of what we choose]. It's not the gadget of the moment."
As the project progresses, Cullinane says Microsoft's Partners in Learning program will create discovery briefs. These briefs will explain the methods and practices being used in Philadelphia so these ideas can be replicated in other districts.
Still a Neighborhood School
In the midst of trying to create the most technologically advanced school in the country, the district is also trying to keep its jewel as just a neighborhood school. Located in West Philadelphia, near the city zoo, the new school will get three-quarters of its students from the surrounding neighborhood. The other spots will be filled by a citywide lottery, but applicants will need no special grades or test scores to apply.
The school will open to 10th graders the first year, then add a grade per year for three years.
"This is not a magnet school," Nevels emphasizes. "We want to make sure access to this school is as broad as possible."
When asked if creating this school would make others in the 214,000-student district feel left out, Nevels says, "This is one of those situations where you have to make a public policy decision. ... If we do not dare to dream, we will have failed our students."
Cullinane says the biggest misconception about the project is that people keep asking her, "What's the one thing you're going to do to make this [school] different? That's the wrong question," she says. The changes planned in this school are "all pieces of the pie. When you do all of these things, then you'll achieve success."
Wayne D'Orio is editor-in-chief.