Academic journal article Education Next

High School 2.0; Can Philadelphia's School of the Future Live Up to Its Name?

Academic journal article Education Next

High School 2.0; Can Philadelphia's School of the Future Live Up to Its Name?

Article excerpt

In 2003, leaders at the School District of Philadelphia, district CEO Paul Vallas and chairman of the School Reform Commission James Nevels, enlisted the help of the Microsoft Corporation in a bold effort: reshape the archaic 19th-century high school model to better prepare students, especially urban students, to live and work in the 21st. Three years later, they opened a sleek, eco-friendly, technologically advanced $62 million building in west Philadelphia bounded by a vast urban park, the city's historic zoo, and some of the most blighted streets in the city. It was called School of the Future (SOF).

Here, it was forecast, nothing less than the transformation of American secondary education would take place. This would be a neighborhood school, in the heart of impoverished urban America, committed to educating all students, not to weeding out the most challenging. Technology would bring the students to new heights, and serve as a prototype for reform and innovation elsewhere.

Each student--or "learner"--would have a laptop or tablet computer. The course of study would be dynamic, interdisciplinary, and driven by their interests. The teachers, called educators, and the community would collaboratively develop a "continuous, relevant, and adaptive" curriculum. Learning would spill out of the building into the surrounding neighborhood and, virtually, across the world.

The September 2006 opening of the school, thick with dignitaries, was featured on the national morning talk shows. Politicians jostled to gel their faces in the picture during the ribbon cutting. Vallas declared the dawn of a new educational era. "This is how schools of today can and should be designed and developed to adequately prepare students for life and work," he said.

Parents and students, who were chosen by lottery, exclaimed in wonder as they walked through the glass doors for the first time. Among them were Carmen Thomas and her son Sekou Thomas-Bamba. Thomas could barely contain her elation.

"This is just absolutely amazing," she said, according to an account the next day in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "It's like a fresh start, new dreams, new adventure, hope. For him to walk in and be a part of the first graduating class is exciting."

Full of enthusiasm, Thomas said that she would volunteer at the school and learn the technology herself.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2009. On a Thursday evening in October, Thomas had kept her promise to volunteer: she and her son were among a handful of parents and students who came to the school to help evaluate the graduation project proposals of the first senior class.

Did the school turn out to be everything she expected?

Thomas thinks for a minute. An adventure, certainly. But not in the way she had anticipated. "There have been challenges," Thomas said. "The transition from books to learning from laptops--I'm not sure all the students were ready."

Sekou, who had spent his elementary years in a highly structured religious school, described his freshman year as "out of control. No one knew what to do exactly." Sophomore year, he considered transferring. "I felt I wasn't learning enough," he said.

To be sure, the future has not yet arrived at School of the Future. Its early years have been plagued by a crisis in leadership, a revolving door of principals and wavering support for its mission from the Philadelphia district. The school's downtown champions, Vallas and Nevels, were gone soon after SOF opened its doors. Some of the more exciting plans for technology use, including a Virtual Teaching Assistant that would allow teachers to track individual student progress online, never materialized. Solar panels were designed to transmit real-time data on energy use so students could study it, but the equipment has yet to be installed. Despite the awe that the school generated in the community, it has not filled to capacity. …

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