School & District Management

Where Big-City Schools Meet ‘Microsoft Smarts’

By Rhea R. Borja — September 19, 2006 9 min read
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As its organizers see it, Philadelphia’s School of the Future is high-tech testimony to just what can be accomplished when big-city school districts team up with corporations that like to try new things.

“Philadelphia asked us to do something we’ve never done before: build a school,” said Craig J. Mundie, the chief research and strategy officer at the Microsoft Corp., which created the newly opened high school in partnership with the city school district. “So we took our best shot.”

A gleaming white building on the edge of a blighted West Philadelphia neighborhood, the $62 million school garnered wide attention when it opened this month, in part because of its technological bells and whistles. Those futuristic features include a tablet personal computer for each student, interactive digital whiteboards, a supercharged wireless network, customized educational software, and digital “smart cards” to open lockers and pay for meals—all making possible a virtually paperless environment.

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Business, government, and education officials also laud the 162,000-square-foot school for its energy-efficient design, the flexible classroom furniture, its use of some of Microsoft’s business practices for staff and students, and a curriculum featuring project-based learning and career-skills requirements.

The need for such a school—and the business community’s support of it—is clear in light of an increasing demand for smart, adaptable employees in the United States and abroad, said Mr. Mundie. “It is more important than ever for companies … to help global educators meet future economic and social needs,” he said.

Microsoft and district officials stress that the technology giant did not pick up the tab for building the school. Nor did the money come from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The funds came from the district’s $1.9 billion capital-improvement program.

Instead, Microsoft brought something better, said Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the 194,5000-student district: its people.

“This isn’t Microsoft money,” he said on the school’s opening day, wearing a blue Oxford-cloth shirt with the Microsoft logo on the front. “This is Microsoft smarts.”

Doug Lynch, the vice dean of the University Pennsylvania’s school of education, said superintendents elsewhere should look at the partnership between the Philadelphia district and Microsoft, with its can-do culture and wealth of learning resources. Yet he also suggested that such relationships should be approached with care.

“This innovative spirit … is laudable,” Mr. Lynch said. “But I urge caution, because if you fail, you’ll lose a lot of kids.”

Such admonitions were nowhere to be heard during the school’s opening ceremonies Sept. 7, when a crush of local dignitaries, 170 students and their camera-toting parents, and reporters and camera crews swarmed the campus, careful not to trample the newly sodded grass.

The events culminated with a video clip of Microsoft founder Bill Gates promising to visit. Then, as U2’s “Beautiful Day” boomed over loudspeakers, local, state, and company education officials rang handbells, signifying the school’s formal start.


Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates speaks at opening-day ceremonies via a video displayed on a large screen in the new building's gymnasium.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates speaks at opening-day ceremonies via a video displayed on a large screen in the new building’s gymnasium. —Christopher Powers

The technology giant primarily provided human capital to the School of the Future. Forty-seven Microsoft Corp. employees helped plan the school’s design, technology, and management tools. The company also provided customized educational software and donated $100,000 to name the visitors’ briefing center.

Almost 50 Microsoft employees helped devise the School of the Future, the company says. “We wanted to create a learning environment more continuous, adaptive, and relevant,” said Mary J. Cullinane, the group manager for Microsoft’s U.S. Partners in Learning, a program that works with state governments and local schools on improving education, and the company’s point person for the school.

Ms. Cullinane led the creation of an “education competency wheel,” a set of 37 essential work skills for staff and students. The tool is modeled on Microsoft’s hiring and professional-development competencies. The Redmond, Wash.-based company also developed software, called the Virtual Teaching Assistant, that lets students direct the pace of their learning and allows teachers to give tests via the students’ computers.

The idea for the School of the Future started with Mr. Vallas, who approached Microsoft in 2003. At the time, the company was already considering building a school laboratory to show how technology can enhance learning, Ms. Cullinane said. The concept was to be similar to the Microsoft Home, a house near Microsoft’s facility in West London, England, that is outfitted with various new technologies, such as a bathroom mirror that doubles as a television or music player.

The partnership between the district and Microsoft kicked off in September 2003. By December of that year, the Microsoft team had begun full-time management of the project. In 2004, the district and Microsoft held school briefings in Philadelphia, England, and Australia and visited tech-savvy schools in California, Texas, and England to gather ideas.

Construction crews broke ground in March 2005. That July, Microsoft sponsored a summit on the future of education in which more than 200 education and government leaders from more than 30 countries participated. The second summit is scheduled to be held here in November.

“This [school] contains the best thinking of everyone we could bring into the project,” said Ellen Savitz, the district’s chief development officer.

Microsoft is not the school’s only corporate partner. For example, Blackburn, England-based Promethean Group Technologies Ltd. provides the school’s whiteboards; Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Meru Networks installed the wireless computer network; and Gateway Inc., based in Irvine, Calif., provides laptop computers to the students and staff.

The school has had its share of obstacles. Construction delays placed pressure on an already truncated 18-month building schedule. Costs also rose from a projected $48 million to $62 million, Ms. Savitz said.

Then there’s the name of the school. Its present name is temporary—though not from lack of trying.

The district hoped to raise up to $14 million in naming-rights fees for the school’s endowment fund, ranging from $25,000 for a classroom to $5 million to name the entire school. The district has raised $3 million so far, said Ms. Savitz. If no company steps up with $5 million—the price the district has set on the school’s name—the district may ask the community to help pick a permanent name, she said.

Of the money raised to date, $2 million comes from the Bowland Charitable Trust, a foundation in Blackburn, England, that helps support education projects in the United Kingdom and other countries.

The trust has a special interest in improving education in poor areas, and will encourage educational exchanges between urban schools in the United Kingdom and in Philadelphia, said Carole Fahy, the trust’s administrator. “We believe that not just the School of the Future, but the work that is being done by the Philadelphia school district, will in some areas show the way to improvements in urban schools, and not just in the U.S.,” she wrote in an e-mail.


Outside organizations donated about $3 million toward the School of the Future. Other businesses donated equipment or human resources.

• Bowland Charitable Trust: $2 million
• Philadelphia Water Department: $300,000
• SAP AG: $150,000
• Vanguard Foundation: $250,000 to hire a community-engagement coordinator for three years
• Promethean Technologies Ltd.: $250,000 in technology and equipment
• Microsoft Corp: $100,000
• Philadelphia Stock Exchange: $100,000
• SunGard Data Systems Inc.: $25,000
• Gateway Inc.: 10 laptop computers

The remaining $1 million comes from other companies, including $100,000 from Microsoft to name the visitors’ briefing center.

Walk into the school and what strikes you is the sunlight flooding its interior, its wide public spaces, and its strong, bold design. Mr. Vallas has called it a “school without shadows.”

But the school doesn’t just look good. It’s also energy-efficient, garnering the third-highest level in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system of the U.S. Green Building Council, a Washington-based coalition of building industry leaders advocating environmentally responsible buildings.

The school’s heating and cooling system is almost 50 percent more efficient than a traditional system, said Jason Kilwinski, the director of sustainable design and operations for the Prisco Group, the Hopewell, N.J.-based architectural firm that designed the school.

A 40,000-gallon tank captures rainwater, which is used to flush toilets. That by itself will cut water use by 60 percent, Mr. Kilwinski said. Photovoltaic glass panels also help decrease the school’s electricity costs. In addition, the performance center’s green roof—composed of plants and mosses—will help insulate it and protect it from ultraviolet rays.

“The more you can do with natural processes,” Mr. Kilwinski said, “the more savings you can build into the system.”

The building itself is a teaching tool, he added. Students can soon go to a Web site to monitor how much power the school is using, for example, or how much water is being absorbed by the green roof.

Despite its pedigree, the school is not a magnet school, but largely draws students from the neighborhood. It will eventually educate 750 students, adding a class each year.

Roughly 1,500 students applied to the School of the Future this year; the 170 chosen were picked by lottery. Seventy-five percent came from the West Philadelphia community, and the remainder from the rest of the city.

Almost all the students are African-American, about 10 percent are in special education, and about 85 percent are poor.

“We did not screen for grades, attendance, discipline issues,” said Ms. Savitz. “We’re going to get what we’re going to get.”

At the end of the opening day, Principal Shirley Grover says goodbye to students from the first freshman class at Philadelphia's School of the Future.

Students must demonstrate fluency in a foreign language, complete a research project, and demonstrate 11 “21st-century skills,” such as time management and problem-solving, to graduate, said Shirley Grover, the school’s principal. They must also apply to a college or university to get their high school diplomas, she said.

Honor students from Villanova University will tutor School of the Future students online, and professors from the University of Pennsylvania will teach a class in robotics and another in urban design. Drexel University will also provide resources, including a graduate student in library science, for its interactive learning center.

On the morning of Sept. 7, the school’s first freshman class approached the school holding white banners bearing names of continents. Many were neatly dressed in khaki pants and blue polo or T-shirts with the logos of local universities.

One of them was 14-year-old Aja Fairbanks, who wants to be an astronomer. “I’ve always been interested in the stars, skies, and space,” she said. “[The school] will give me the knowledge to succeed.”

Virginia Campbell, a parent of another student, said she hopes the school will fulfill its promise and won’t fall victim to urban neglect. “I hope people will keep it up, keep it clean,” she said, eyeing the spotless exterior. “West Philly could really use this.”

As with any experiment, Ms. Cullinane of Microsoft predicts, the new school will face bumps along the road. “We’re sure there will be mistakes, and sure there will be things done well, ” she remarked. But she said the company would stick by the school for the long haul: “We’ve committed not to just opening the school, but also learning from what’s been created.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as Where Big-City Schools Meet ‘Microsoft Smarts’


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