As it was conceived, the School of the Future was to be a study in contrast to the typical big-city high school.
When the $62 million facility opened in Philadelphia in 2006 with a relatively small student population, a computer-based curriculum delivered with the latest technology tools, and a unique partnership with corporate giant Microsoft, it set out to upend a secondary school model that had changed little since the industrial era and had spelled failure for too many students.
Now in its fourth year, and with its first class of seniors heading toward graduation, the School of the Future remains just that: an ideal whose realization is somewhere down the road.
The school’s messy path to reform has included leadership instability, wavering commitment from the central office to its mission, swings in curricular approaches, technological glitches, and challenges in meeting the academic needs of a mostly disadvantaged student population. Those problems have left many analysts wondering whether the school can transform its future into a promising one.
One compelling lesson to come out of the project is just how difficult it is to change the American high school, particularly in a real-world setting like an under performing urban district, says Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute and a co-editor of a forthcoming book of essays about the school.
“They’re trying to do a radical school redesign as part of the Philly school district, and it’s been hampered by ... pretty dramatic challenges,” he says. “The fact that you know what needs to be done doesn’t mean organizationally you are always capable of doing it.”
Still, students there feel hope for its future. “This school is way different from other high schools because the whole atmosphere gives you a lot of opportunities to learn,” says 11th grader Terrell Young. “When I first came here, I was lazy with my learning. ... Now I’m more aware of what I have to do to be successful.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 2010 edition of Digital Directions as School of the Future