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For Philly kids, it's back to the future

Philadelphia School of the Future opens its doors to an inaugural freshman class, thanks to Microsoft partnership.

As other kids head back to school, a group of Philadelphia high school students will be going back to the future.

The Philadelphia School of the Future, built through a partnership between the school district and Microsoft, opened its doors Thursday to an inaugural freshman class of 170 students chosen by lottery, from largely low-income families around the city.

The students now command their own wireless laptops for school and home use and are connected to the school's centralized high-tech network for learning and administration.

The School of the Future is the first such high school to be built and completed under a school district's budget. And it integrates technology throughout the school to teach urban students hailing from all backgrounds and skill levels. Most other high-tech highs, as they're called, are charter schools in typically wealthy neighborhoods and require minimum academic standards.

"It's a big change and it's about transforming education by making it more engaging and empowering to students by having technology at their fingertips," said Ellen Savitz, the chief development officer at the School District of Philadelphia. "It's a different way of teaching. We expect it to result in higher student achievement through a culture that is collaborative and supportive."

The school opens at a time when the continues to be a national concern. Many more white children have access to the Internet at home and school than do black or Hispanic students, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education, and that discrepancy could prove a setback to underprivileged children. The School of the Future could help level the playing field, given its student population is 99 percent black.

"It's a big change and it's about transforming education by making it more engaging and empowering to students by having technology at their fingertips."
--Ellen Savitz, School District of Philadelphia

One of the features of the school is a centralized wireless computer system. It can identify individuals--whether students, parents or teachers--and then serve up tailored information to that person's laptop. Teachers can log on to get lesson plans or W-4 forms. Parents can access information on their child's progress or school lunch schedule. Kids can download homework, read required books, study new languages or take pop quizzes.

"Not all students move at the same pace, so the virtual teaching assistant software (we're using) allows teachers to get a sense of where kids are," said Savitz. "If a child gets all five questions (of an ad-hoc quiz) right, they might be taken to challenge resources. Others might be given more learning time."

She added: "Those technology solutions allow for a more adaptive and personalized approach to learning."

Students are also given smart cards to access their digital lockers (no combination required), the food court and the interactive learning center. The cards will also keep track of what children buy at the food court and help provide data on diet, nutrition and caloric intake.

The idea for the school was born in September 2003, when Philadelphia public school district CEO Paul Valis met with Microsoft executives. The two parties discussed working together on formulating the high-tech school of the future so that it could be a template for other areas around the country. The school came to fruition this year.

"Our focus was (building) a collaborative structure," said Mary Cullinane, group manager of Microsoft U.S. Partners in Learning and a former school teacher. "We need to diminish time and place for learning opportunities to occur."

The school cost about $63 million to build from the ground up, a figure that Savitz said is typical. The building itself is designed to be energy efficient, with features like a green roof, so the funds normally devoted to upkeep can be rechanneled to education. Those funds have helped buy electronic books, geometric sketch pad software and Rosetta Stone foreign language software. Philadelphia school planners aim to spend the same amount on the School of the Future as other highs in the district.

Microsoft contributed to the project by donating the time and skills of its project managers, rather than equipment and software.

There may be challenges ahead, however. Administrators do not plan to use any blocking software to limit student's access to the Internet, according to Savitz, so they must rely on children to do the right thing when it comes to popular sites like MySpace. Teachers are educating kids on protocol while using the technology, both online and ergonomically, however.

"This is a new frontier, and it's is part of the instruction," Savitz said. "Kids are aware of what is appropriate and what is not. But they don't always do what's appropriate. It's a question of raising the judgment level of the kids."