TOPICS > Education

Philadelphia High School Integrates Latest Technologies

November 14, 2006 at 6:02 PM EDT
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TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: West Philadelphia has the reputation of being a rough part of town, not the kind of place that most cities would use to test out a new approach to public education. But this is where the school district has chosen to build what it calls the school of the future.

It’s a gleaming $62-million edifice constructed on former park land. It’s just down the street from the modest row house where ninth-grader Littleton Hurst lives with his mother, Eleanor Shockley.

ELEANOR SHOCKLEY, Parent: I think everybody here is excited about it, everybody. And the students that have been offered the opportunity to go there has been excited, as well.

TOM BEARDEN: One thing that has a lot of kids excited, every learner — they don’t call them students — has a city-supplied laptop computer that they can take home. The laptops connect to the school’s wireless network for high-speed Internet access. Littleton Hurst and classmate Quasan Baker are thrilled to have them.

LITTLETON HURST, Student: You can do everything faster. And if you do everything faster, that means you get more assignments. And the more assignments you do, the better your grade comes out.

TOM BEARDEN: How about you? How do you use yours?

QUASAN BAKER, Student: Well, it’s, like, the same. Work, work and more work. That’s all I do. I stay up late nights typing on my computer, finding out new stuff about it.

TOM BEARDEN: We spoke with the ninth-graders in the Interactive Learning Center, a library with very few books. Nearly all the reference materials are online. Shirley Grover is the school’s principal, although she calls herself the chief learner.

SHIRLEY GROVER, Chief Learner, School of the Future: This is an opportunity to take technology, harness it, and harness the energy of adolescence by engaging them in relevant and meaningful learning. That’s more lifelike, and we hope that we’ll maximize their individual potential so that they can be those top scientists, those top mathematicians, those top problem-solvers.

TOM BEARDEN: Is the laptop that each kid has the key to all of this?

SHIRLEY GROVER: Yes.

TOM BEARDEN: That’s the portal?

SHIRLEY GROVER: Yes. It’s actually the lifeline, I think, to learning.

Serving as an example

Paul Vallas
CEO, School District of Philadelphia
At the end of the day, the human resources is what we're seeking, and sometimes money can't buy high-quality human resources.

TOM BEARDEN: Some are concerned students carrying those $1,500 computers through high-crime areas will be a tempting target for thieves, but so far there's only been one incident.

The school opened with great fanfare on September 7th, when the first students entered the building: 170 West Philadelphia freshmen selected by a lottery from a pool of over 1,500 applicants. A new set of ninth graders will be added each year until the building reaches its capacity of 750.

The school received a lot of media attention because it's a joint venture between the Philadelphia public school system and the giant software company Microsoft. Microsoft's founder, Bill Gates, has long expressed concern about the state of American public education.

BILL GATES, Founder, Microsoft: America's high schools are obsolete. By obsolete, I don't just mean that they're broken or are flawed or under funded, though a case could be made for every one of those points. By "obsolete" I mean our high schools, even when they're working as designed, cannot teach all our students what they need to know today.

TOM BEARDEN: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent $2.3 billion on education projects around the world. But having forged partnerships with corporations before, Philadelphia school district CEO Paul Vallas approached Microsoft directly for help. Microsoft agreed to supply brainpower but declined to actually pay for the school.

PAUL VALLAS, CEO, School District of Philadelphia: It was advantageous to us because, at the end of the day, the human resources is what we're seeking, and sometimes money can't buy high-quality human resources. And it's advantageous to them, because it's just not about them writing us a check. It's about them putting some of their best and brightest on a project that is dear to their heart and that they're committed to.

TOM BEARDEN: Mary Cullinane is Microsoft's point person for the project.

MARY CULLINANE, Director, Microsoft's U.S. Partners in Learning: Our goal here, though, was to demonstrate in West Philadelphia what's possible and then build resources and tools, best practices, case studies, assets on our Web site, quarterly briefings that we do, you know, four times a year, which schools from all over the world come to learn about what's happening in Philadelphia.

But what we didn't do is we didn't write a check. And we did that because we wanted other folks to look at this project and say, "We could do that, too."

Futuristic approach to education

Kathy Lee
Teacher
Personally, because for me it's the human interaction with the students, and it [the software] does allow me to open up doors that most teachers don't get the opportunity to do.

TOM BEARDEN: Microsoft helped design every part of the school. For example, the classrooms don't have blackboards. They have electronic displays instead, for Internet access, videos, connecting with other classrooms around the world.

All learners have smart cards, electronic I.D. badges that register attendance, open lockers, and will even track calories consumed at lunch. There's the help desk located on the second floor for students to recharge batteries and get problems fixed. The biggest issue so far?

TEACHER: I need you to come up with a password, OK?

TOM BEARDEN: Forgotten passwords. There is no set schedule and location for classes; that information is posted online daily. This particular class was meeting in the school cafeteria.

TEACHER: You need photographs. You need interviews. You need to write something and also your aspirations for the future. Is that clear?

STUDENTS: Yes.

TEACHER: Thank you very much.

TOM BEARDEN: Students study traditional subjects, but instead of taking compartmentalized courses in algebra or American lit and doing conventional math and reading homework, they have a project-driven curriculum.

They are assigned issues to investigate and are expected to do original research. The idea is that dealing with real-world problems exposes students to many different fields of knowledge.

Teachers say the challenge is to use the technology to teach, not just teach the technology. Kathy Lee specializes in environmental studies.

KATHY LEE, Teacher: The software is marvelous. It makes my job easier. But I think, if I were to put on a scale of 1 to 10, I think I might make it like a 4 for me, personally, because for me it's the human interaction with the students, and it does allow me to open up doors that most teachers don't get the opportunity to do.

SHIRLEY GROVER: The 11 here, these two digits are not considered to be really high compared to the 50.

Creating a corporate culture

Ryan Wheeler
Student
They want you to succeed, so they're like just, 'Go ahead. You can do it. You can do it.' They give us time. They want us to succeed, so they keep pressuring us to do -- because they're determined for us to take another step higher.

TOM BEARDEN: Principal Grover says the real innovation is creating a kind of Microsoft corporate culture in the school, a culture that demands success from both students and teachers.

SHIRLEY GROVER: The partnering on the outside is important to sort of have us -- we've always looked inwardly as educators. It's sort of like been our little world, and we've looked in. We thought we knew the answers to what needed to be.

And I think, over the years, what's happened is we've recognized the fact that we need to look outwardly, also, that is has to be dynamic, both inside and outside, because we're shaping kids for the world and not just for education.

TOM BEARDEN: In the school for only a month, ninth-grader Ryan Wheeler says that culture is already established.

RYAN WHEELER, Student: They want you to succeed, so they're like just, "Go ahead. You can do it. You can do it." They give us time. They want us to succeed, so they keep pressuring us to do -- because they're determined for us to take another step higher.

QUASAN BAKER: And I find it like we're making history right now, as to be the first lucky 170 to walk into the school of the future. And I find that amazing how I got accepted.

The public school system

Diane Jass Ketelhut
Temple University
We have a school district here in Philadelphia that has 200,000 students in it, and yet they've spent $65 million fixing up one school for 500 students. While that's great and this is a model, is it a model for the rest of the Philadelphia schools?

TOM BEARDEN: But some critics wonder if the district can separate out all that's going on in the school to determine what's working and what's not.

DIANE JASS KETELHUT, Temple University: It changes how I think we work with kids and we help them understand what information is.

TOM BEARDEN: Diane Jass Ketelhut is an assistant professor of science education at Philadelphia's Temple University.

DIANE JASS KETELHUT: If I was a student and I went to a school that had been built 50 years ago, was run down, and I walked in everyday, the message I'm receiving is, "My school doesn't matter. Therefore, I must not matter."

I walk into a school that's $65 million was spent on, and I say, "Wow, I was selected for this school. I must matter. And, therefore, this is an important place to be, and I have to live up to the expectations of me."

And so it's very difficult to know whether what they're doing is because of their educational model, the business model, the technology, or just the fact that somebody spent time preparing and creating a good environment for learning.

TOM BEARDEN: And Professor Jass Ketelhut wonders about the rest of the kids in the system.

DIANE JASS KETELHUT: We have a school district here in Philadelphia that has 200,000 students in it, and yet they've spent $65 million fixing up one school for 500 students. While that's great and this is a model, is it a model for the rest of the Philadelphia schools?

It's unlikely they can afford to do that with the other 40 or 50 schools that are in the school district. And therefore, one wonders whether this is money well-spent from that aspect, whereas what could we have done to raise the level for all students somewhat, as opposed to a lot for a small group of students?

TOM BEARDEN: CEO Vallas says the system plans to create 3,500 classrooms of the future over the next 18 months, eventually providing every public school student access to the same technology that kids in the school of the future enjoy, even if it's not in a new building.

The school system says it has a rigorous, ongoing testing program to accurately measure whether the school of the future's approach actually has a future. They won't have definitive results for at least four years, when the students who started this school receive their diplomas.