It was touted as a groundbreaking achievement in a public-private partnership for education. But eight years in, the former Microsoft’s High School of the Future is struggling through a legacy of broken promises and deferred dreams.
The School of the Future looked every bit the part when it opened in Sept. 2006. It incorporated cutting-edge ideas and advanced technology in virtually every aspect, from building design and research-based curriculum to Internet-connected classrooms and devices for every student.
Pens, pencils, paper and books were put aside to usher in a new way of learning. All assignments were to be done on computers, where classroom instruction and textbooks were also found.
Conceived as one of the most advanced high schools in the country, the district-run school in West Philadelphia showcased the potential of private-public partnership in education.
But somewhere along the way, the School of the Future seems to have lost its way.
It was not built to withstand financial distress consuming the School District of Philadelphia, which is funded by public tax dollars. The school district is weathering financial crisis again for the second time, and the latest budget crisis is stretching into its third full year.
Previously, there was a surplus inventory of laptop computers on hand for students. Now there aren’t enough for each student to have one. In addition to normal wear and tear, computer breakdown attributed to improper handling by students has increased, Principal Richard Sherin said.
He called the high rate of computer breakdown an anomaly, but the increased costs of troubleshooting and repairs has squeezed a tight school budget even further. And there’s little hope of a golden parachute from the school district, which provides funding in support of the school budget.
“It’s not something that the school district can’t throw money at. These budget constraints are being felt everywhere,” Sherin said.
School officials are reviewing the possibility of varying the devices used: one classroom equipped with all tablets, all laptop computers in another, standard desktop models in a computer laboratory, and paper and writing utensils in yet another.
“The sustainability piece is more important than just going out and buying it,” Sherin said.
It’s not clear from interviews conducted with the school district about whether a plan to keep technology current was ever fully developed or fell by the way side in an urban school district that has experienced typical high turnover among staff. Sharin is the third principal in three years.
According to a press release from Microsoft when the school opened, technology was part of the educational process.
“A rigorous planning process allowed the school district and the community to identify the educational needs first and then determine where and how technology could address them,” the release stated.
Equipment not the only problem
In addition, the school doubled its enrollment to about 600 students after more than 24 school buildings across the city were closed in June 2013. The School of the Future took in students from schools shuttered in the West Planning Area: the original West Philadelphia High School, Sayre High School and Overbrook High School, according to the district’s facilities master plan.
According to safe schools reports compiled by the state Department of Education, the enrollment count stood at 399 students in 2012-13, increasing to 698 students in 2013-14, following the merger. There were 88 violent incidents reported in 2013-14, up from 46 in the year-ago period. The number of offenders went up from 76 to 119 during that period. There were nine students arrested, up from three a year earlier, the report stated.
School officials projected significant savings by shuttering schools. The goal was to use millions saved by shrinking district infrastructure to improve the climate and academic programs and remaining schools. The facilities master plan also would raise the building utilization rate to about 78 percent, which represents an 11 percent increase. Buildings targeted by the facilities master plan were underutilized or flagged for failing to meet academic benchmarks.
Anthony Hopkins, spokesperson for the advocacy group, Public Citizens for Children and Youth, was not surprised by the difficulties created by funding problems. He said, “The School of the Future, like any other school, when it doesn’t receive fair funding from the state, it’s going to struggle to reach its goal.”
A dream deferred
The School of the Future was ground-breaking, a unique collaboration between the School District of Philadelphia, Microsoft Corp., with no fewer than 20 local companies, educational and cultural institutions as partners.
At the time, James Nevel, who was then chair of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, said, “Education is too big an issue for any one organization to tackle by itself, and the hands-on contributions of a partner like Microsoft will prove to be worth more than any dollar amount. This collaboration accomplished in three years what no single entity has ever been able to do alone.”
Fernando Gallard, a spokesperson for the school district, said financial responsibility for the School of the Future always rested with the city school district.
“Technology has been a cost that was covered by the school budget, and the budget of that school particularly, the same as any other [public] school in the city of Philadelphia,” Gallard said.
After holding public hearings and seeking input from 5,000 people, Pedro Ramos, who was then chair of the School Reform Commission, said providing safe, high-quality seats and fiscal responsibility factored into the final decision on closing schools.
“By taking action, we would continue to deteriorate our public schools to the point where they become obsolete to the children we have sworn to serve,” Ramos said in a statement in February 2013.
Allocating money in the budget for computer repairs is considered low priority and unlikely. Budgetary constraints are forcing school officials to phase-out use of laptop computers for class assignments and reconsidering how technology can best be used in the classroom. The School of the Future is considering purchasing devices that are cheaper and more within its means, Gallard said.
Cliff Leatherbury said the technology program set the School of the Future apart from other public schools.
In a recent interview, he said, “That was my son’s key reason for wanting to go there. It gave him a little pride about where he went.”
Sherin said the technology-based school represented a significant step toward closing the digital divide since its opening, providing students in a major city with state of the art technology on par with wealthier school districts. He named Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Comcast Corp. as companies in talks about upgrading and replacing technology. Drexel University and Villanova University have been providing technical expertise, and sending graduate students to serve as mentors and help in making students college- and career-ready.
“We have a lot of people interested in the success of the School of the Future,” he said. “We are talking to them now about getting our technology fleet back up and running.”
A spokesperson for the Microsoft Corp., reached via e-mail, declined comment for this story.
Sherin’s statements were couched in the language used at the school’s opening by Paul Vallas, who was CEO of the School District of Philadelphia, and Microsoft’s lead strategists. He said the school remains focused on its original mission of providing a top-notch education that prepares its students for success in college and careers.
Students and staff have wireless connections to the Internet, and administration and teaching are informed by best practices.
The demographics are about the same as when the School of the Future opened. Most students are minorities, many from low-income households, according to the high school guide compiled by the Great Philly Schools.
Officials hope the school will be on its way to implementing its technology replenishment plan by early 2015. They are also exploring new strategies for improving education at the school.
They talked about moving beyond the guideline of providing one device for each student in the short term but making multiple devices available on the basis of an individual’s educational need under a five-year plan.