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School of the Future: 10 years after concept, School District and Microsoft partnership prepares for new future

In 2006, West Philadelphia’s School of the Future opened boldly, expecting every student to have a laptop by her side every school day. Text books weren’t required. Three years earlier, Microsoft and the School District of Philadelphia first paired up to design, develop and launch what a school that prepared students for a changing world […]

Administrators and educators gathered to undergo additional technology training and talk about new initiatives at a professional development day on Nov. 6.

In 2006, West Philadelphia’s School of the Future opened boldly, expecting every student to have a laptop by her side every school day. Text books weren’t required.

Three years earlier, Microsoft and the School District of Philadelphia first paired up to design, develop and launch what a school that prepared students for a changing world would look like, built to change the role of education in the city. Microsoft had done something similar before at its Redmond campus in Washington state – with its “office of the future” and “home of the future” — and in 1990 a similarly-named grade school launched in Manhattan.

But the West Fairmount Park location near the Philadelphia Zoo was chosen to be a different kind of model. The school district and Microsoft believed that if this sustainable and technology-influenced initiative could work in Philadelphia, it could work anywhere, and thus could serve as a model for cities around the nation. It’s the same ethos that is driving a social entrepreneurship conversation here locally now.

In the 10 years since the concept was unveiled and six years since launching, SOF has been challenged by funding troubles, educational attainment shortcomings and all of the headaches and surprises one might expect with launching a new school with a model in Philadelphia’s educational climate of the last decade.

But today, staff say the mission is better focused, the goals are clearer and the impact is real.

Educator and instructional technologist Thomas Gaffey explained the unique trapezoid placement of furniture in a School of the Future classroom.

The $63 million high school opened in 2006 at a seemingly-rare time of monetary stability for the school district. Everything from the design of the building to the bright, white walls and natural light shining in, its LEED certification, along with the varied use of language makes this public school unique.

In the budget strapped school district of today, it’s important to make clear that no additional per-pupil money or resources go into SOF than any other ‘citywide admissions’ high school (see a district description of such schools, which are neither magnet, nor charter schools, here [PDF]), says Kate Hayes, the SOF director of development and external relations.

“That is important because it was part of Microsoft and then-superintendent Paul Vallas’ negotiations…to build a school that could be replicable and sustainable,” Hayes said. “If they pumped a whole bunch of extra money and resources in here, we would have great outcomes, but then people could come in and say, ‘Well, I can’t do that in my district or that will never work in my classroom.’ That has been our challenge here. And it’s been a very, very real challenge.”

Instead the focus is increasingly in outside fundraising to support its laptop programs and others, in addition to seeking volunteer and other support (If you’re interested in getting involved, email Hayes at khayes AT sof.philasd.org). A decade into the relationship, Microsoft has focused its support more on advice than direct funding, but remains a “strong partner,” said Hayes.

“They continue to offer human capital support and have supported the creation of this nonprofit and our advisory council. They provide opportunities for educators at the school to connect with other schools around the country and also provide a software grant and other tech resources for our school.”

With that support, Hayes, a 29-year-old resident of Media, Pa., said she has watched the school grow significantly throughout the past six years.

“There’s a lot of history in this place, there’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of positive things that have come out of here [and] a lot of lessons learned,” she said.

Negative feedback pounded the new school during its first three years: learners weren’t using technology efficiently, educators didn’t understand how to incorporate the technology into the classroom, the school wasn’t meeting the district’s educational and assessment standards and – perhaps the largest disappointment – the leadership roles were never consistent.

Thomas Gaffey, an educator and instructional technologist, said in 2007 – his first year working with the school – he had four different people who were his boss.

“That created a whole lot of turmoil in the whole building,” he said.

Four principals and three years later, chief learner Rosalind Chivis stepped in.

“That’s when we really started to put a program into place,” Gaffey, a 30-year-old West Philadelphia resident, said. “We had stable leadership, some experience of the staff [and] we had strategies.”

Spanish educator Alicia Conquest-Bulgin and science educator Charlena Martin chatted during a lunch break.

Gaffey said the school finally started to tackle the misconception that all members of the millennial generation have natural technological skills. The millennial generation is able to communicate and entertain themselves with a laptop, but that doesn’t mean they can solve problems, he said.

“One of the things we learned after the first two years is that we actually [needed to place learners in an] immersive environment with technology and use that technology to solve problems,” Gaffey said. “It’s not about the technology, that’s not what makes 21st-century teaching special. It’s about your approach. It’s about what the student’s role is in the classroom. Is the student’s role just to sit there and listen to you talk and then to regurgitate, or is the student’s role to actually create what we call knowledge-based products?”

The paperless, textbook-less school focuses on “just in time” learning instead of “just in case” learning, which means the educators aren’t giving the learners traditional computer classes where they learn PowerPoint, Excel and Word. Rather, these computer programs are taught for practical application, Hayes said.

“They need it to solve the problem, so they are going to use it in that moment, they’re going to practice it in that moment, they’re going to internalize and learn it,” Hayes said.

Below watch a video on the School of the Future.

When Gaffey teaches math, he relies on OneNote, a digital notebook that is part of any Microsoft Office Suite.

“It’s a space where you can put any type of digital information,” he said. “That’s where it becomes really cool for the classroom.”

Gaffey said he builds his own notebook with OneNote to share with his class and incorporates written math problems and videos to accommodate for all learners’ individual needs.

Gaffey said he usually will have 10-minute lectures while using the interactive whiteboard in the classroom, and then ask students to conduct respective assignments.

“Then everyone opens their computers and I hear my voice,” he said. “They play the video over and over again until they have to ask for clarification. That’s the beauty of what technology can do, for math anyway.”

Thomas Emerson, an English teacher who has been working at the school for six years, uses technology in his classroom for reading comprehension. He said he often has students record themselves reading so they can listen and learn from their mistakes.

“It’s not a technology school,” Emerson said. “[It's always about] how can we use this tool to help us better educate our kids, not about how can we use this tool to be glitzy and glamorous and do the most cutting-edge thing, which I think really shapes the way we use it.”

Amanda Schenck, a social science teacher who has been at SOF for three years, said she is appreciative of the students having personal laptops because she is able to give feedback a lot quicker.

“At the beginning of class I can ask them five questions and I’ll have the answers like that,” she said. “So I can be like, ‘OK, they obviously don’t understand this so we could start in a different spot…Them showing me that they’re understanding something would take them longer if I wanted to allow them to do it through different means.”

Elizabeth Harvey, a physics teacher who has worked with the school for six years, said she has learners use Outlook to set reminders and stay organized. Harvey said she has also found it effective for her own organization and has given her a better grasp on communicating with students.

But Schenck and Harvey did admit they are sometimes distracted by students on computers during class.

“The old guard believes that having a technological device out means that there is something happening that is off task and that’s a really hard feeling to let go of,” Harvey said. “[We should] be more flexible. Why not embrace more technology if it’s making them work at a way that’s best for them?”

Since the school has taken initiative to improve upon mistakes, it has seen success. Learners’ math and reading scores have increased every year and the school has a 100 percent college or trade school acceptance rate for seniors. It is also the second most requested school in the city next to Central High School, Hayes said.

Students are admitted into the school through a lottery. The school currently maintains a little less than 500 learners, Hayes said. It has the capacity to fit more students, which Hayes hopes the school is able to achieve.

But with budget cuts, the school faces an even tougher problem this year as more students become enrolled and laptops need replaced.

“We’re on our own for technology funding,” Hayes said.

Administrators and educators are currently working to produce a nonprofit partnership foundation to help sustain funding (If you’re interested in getting involved, email Hayes at khayes AT sof.philasd.org).

“What we’re doing is creating this nonprofit to raise the money that we need to buy the computers that we need to run the program that we have here at the school,” Hayes said.

This report was done in partnership with Temple University’s Philadelphia Neighborhoods program, the capstone class for the Temple’s Department of Journalism.

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