School Sees Better Days in the Future

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 24, 2009 10 min read
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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 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 here and in cities around the country.

Now in its fourth year, and with its first class of seniors heading toward graduation, Philadelphia’s School of the Future remains just that: an ideal whose realization remains somewhere down the road.

Located in a modern white building, the school stands out from the neighboring rows of run-down houses. And it serves as a beacon for students seeking to avoid the city’s comprehensive high schools, many of which are crowded and aging.

Interactive: School of the Future

But 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 disadvantaged student population. Those problems have left many analysts wondering whether the much-ballyhooed school can live up to the hype.

When it opened, the school’s promise was seen in its potential for tapping technology to create an innovative learning environment that is “continuous, adaptive, and relevant,” as the school motto states. By stirring in Microsoft business principles, as well as learning resources and support services, the school seemed to many observers to have found a winning formula. (“Where Big-City Schools Meet ‘Microsoft Smarts’,” Sept. 20, 2006.)

“What we have proven through this project is that the ‘School of the Future’ is not too futuristic or out of reach,” Paul G. Vallas, who was then chief executive officer of the city school district, said at the school’s opening. “This is how schools of today can and should be designed and developed to adequately prepare students for life and work.”

Today, however, a visitor would be hard-pressed to decipher how the school is fundamentally different from a typical high school, aside from the superiority of the facility.

The furniture is new, but students still sit facing the front of the room where the teacher is using an interactive whiteboard to write standard algebra problems. The class bell rings every 45 minutes to send the 750 students to the next period. And during those periods, valuable class time can be spent taking attendance, correcting rude behavior, and even sharpening pencils, as was the case on a recent day early in the school year, before each student was issued a laptop.

Coping With ‘Constraints’

Teachers and administrators, as well as support staff from the Seattle-based Microsoft Corp., which has been a partner with the district since the project started, have acknowledged such flaws and candidly shared frustrations of their own. But they view many of the problems they’ve encountered as unavoidable obstacles to school reform within the confines of a large urban school district.

“We chose to do this with every constraint possible,” said Mary J. Cullinane, who has overseen the project from the start as part of Microsoft’s U.S. Partners in Learning program. “Sometimes I think we were stupid to do that, but as a country, if we don’t figure out [how to reform high schools] under those constraints, we’re in trouble.”

Philadelphia's School of the Future


The Promise: With technology at everyone’s fingertips, students and teachers would have access to high-quality, rigorous, online curriculum and assessment. The school would offer a collaborative, project-based approach to learning to prepare students for college and the 21st-century workplace. Each student was issued a laptop to allow continuous access to resources and provide the tools needed for in-depth projects.

The Reality: The district’s accountability requirements, and the need for many students to develop more basic math and reading skills, led to a return to more traditional, teacher-led instruction. Projects have not been the driving force in the curriculum, as was envisioned. The lack of technological proficiency among many students and teachers made it difficult to utilize computer resources efficiently.


The Promise: The school was planned under the leadership of then-CEO Paul G. Vallas, who supported its innovative approach to curriculum and instruction. The founding principal was the kind of strong instructional leader needed to fulfill that vision.

The Reality: The principal resigned after the first year for personal reasons, and the school has had a series of leaders since then, most with a different approach to curriculum and instruction. With Mr. Vallas’ departure in 2006 the school lost its high-level champion in the district’s central office.


The Promise: Educators and supporters of the school had hoped a well-equipped, innovative, safe environment would motivate students to take school seriously and inspire deep learning. Innovative instruction with high-tech tools and resources would be more engaging and effective for students.

The Reality: Internet access in the first year was unreliable, making the online curriculum unusable and leaving some teachers with insufficient guidance for their courses. Many students and teachers were not adept at using the new tools, requiring additional training that took away from instruction. Lack of structure led to discipline problems.

Sources : American Enterprise Institute; Education Week

The difficulties started before crews broke ground, with sticky negotiations over building a new facility in the midst of the Fairmount Park historical district in West Philadelphia.

The school was funded through the district’s traditional capital-improvement budget, with little financial support from Microsoft. The company did help in planning the school’s design and features.

The hiring of teachers and administrators is bound by district policies, which add layers to the task of finding those best suited for the job. Students are selected through a lottery system, but there is no academic standard for admission. And the school has to meet the same testing and accountability requirements as others in the district.

“At every turn, there was a challenge,” Ms. Cullinane writes in one of a series of white papers commissioned this year by the American Enterprise Institute about the school’s struggles and what can be learned from them. “A grading system that focused on proficiency rather than a numeric yardstick was challenged due to a computer system that only accepted letter grades. ... A community based on achieving proficiency through projects that could span across years was challenged by the need for students to be able to transfer to other schools. A later start time was challenged by the realities of late-afternoon safety concerns, work schedules, athletic contests.”

Researchers from local universities have also tried to deconstruct the school’s problems in leadership, curriculum, and technology, as well as the likelihood of “scaling up” the model. Those papers, also commissioned by the AEI, will be published in a book next year by Harvard Education Press.

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 underperforming urban district, said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the AEI, and a co-editor with Ms. Cullinane on the forthcoming book.

“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 said. “The fact that you know what needs to be done doesn’t mean organizationally you are always capable of doing it.”

As a result of all the early glitches, school officials felt compelled to revert to the district curriculum and a traditional grading system.

“Do we have a school of the future? I don’t think so,” writes Jan Biros, a researcher at Drexel University and a contributor to the book project. “We have a beautiful building that is still a safe haven for its students. We have a traditional curriculum being taught in a conventional way. We even have some teachers who insist on using the books they are used to and not creating online materials or using the portal and the Internet.”

Not Giving Up

Most educators here agree. But they have not given up on pursuing something better, something closer to the original plan.

This year, work is under way to revise and strengthen the school’s intended approach to teaching and learning.

“I see a group of intelligent, committed professionals feverishly trying to build the plane while they’re flying it,” said Principal Rosalind Chivis, the school’s fifth “head learner,” as the school has named the position, since it opened in 2006. Ms. Chivis is starting her second year at the school, but she was a member of the original design team. “We’re in the midst of creating what we hope to be a student-centered, project-based curriculum that will engage students in authentic learning, ... that will be a test bed of best practices that can be leveraged across the district.”

A team of teachers, students, and parents, in fact, will meet throughout the school year to build a new curriculum that makes better use of technology tools and online resources, and integrates projects throughout the content areas.

Glimmers of those concepts exist in individual classrooms, in some specialized assignments, and in the plans for rolling out the new curriculum.

This year, for example, freshmen are taking Project 100, a class that will guide students through all the technical, academic, and intellectual processes required for creating high-quality multimedia projects.

Thomas Gaffey, a math and technology teacher, designed the course as a way to help the school fulfill its promise of more creative and engaging instruction.

Later in the school year, he plans to teach students in his math class about slopes and then have them apply those lessons while designing and constructing staircases for a local organization that builds houses for the homeless.

Students who do well in Mr. Gaffey’s technology class are assigned to work on the school’s help desk, fixing broken laptops and troubleshooting glitches in software programs for teachers and students.

“This is what this school is all about; the learner learning best through doing,” he said. “There’s been a lot of frustration among teachers because the school isn’t what it was supposed to be. But we’re trying to get back to that.”

Some students have expressed similar frustrations, particularly those who entered in the inaugural year when instruction was more dynamic, if unpredictable.

“The first year, the school operated the way they said it would, but then it started to slip and became a lot more traditional,” said 18-year-old Eric Scott, who is on track to graduate at the end of the school year. “The whole purpose of the school was to be unique.”

In Mr. Scott’s view, it is not unique enough. But he and other students are giving teachers feedback on how to improve classes here. And many students agree that, despite its flaws, the School of the Future has offered them an opportunity far different from that of their neighborhood schools.

“When I saw them building this place, I knew I had to go here,” said Marlon Lewis, a 10th grader who grew up in the neighborhood.

“This school is way different from other high schools because the whole atmosphere gives you a lot of opportunities to learn,” said 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.”

Many students credit teachers’ commitment to the school motto, meaning they extend learning beyond the school day and offer help to students when they need it. One teacher, for example, invited students to participate in an online discussion during the presidential debates last fall. When two students at the school could not attend in person, their teachers allowed other students to videotape lessons and stream them live to their classmates’ computers at home. Ms. Chivas has set up an interactive Web site that allows students to share comments about a class or a teacher, positive or negative.

While most of the teachers prefer more active lessons, they say they have no choice but to fall back on what the district expects them to do.

“I feel duty-bound to do some things that look like traditional instruction because of the demands of the assessments, but I still believe that learning should be ‘continuous, relevant, and adaptive,’ ” said teacher Kate Reber, reciting the school’s motto, which adorns classrooms and school uniforms.

When she came to the school as a first-year teacher in 2007, Ms. Reber got a brutal introduction to the frustrations of reform. After working for months with colleagues writing a new, project-based English curriculum, for example, the school principal was replaced, and her course was supplanted by a standard one.

Without a detailed code of conduct, student-discipline procedures were inconsistent, and teachers felt they lacked the authority they needed to deal with students who misbehaved. Ms. Reber said the first three new principals she worked for did not support innovative teaching methods.

Yet Ms. Reber believed change would come, and that she could help it along. She has been involved in the selection process for new teachers, which requires applicants to submit an extensive online application and demonstration of their work, as well as undergo a rigorous interview process. She is also working with 12th graders on senior projects, which are required for graduation.

“When I came here I was excited to work in a place with a high-need population of kids who would be given a different way to frame their relationship with learning,” Ms. Reber said. “We are a school with growing pains, but personally I feel like I’m making progress as an educator, and I am truly helping students move forward as well.”

Despite the hard road, so far, she said, “a lot of us feel really lucky to be here.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2009 edition of Education Week as School Sees Better Days In the Future


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