It’s called the High School of the Future. But can it live up to its name?


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ABOUT TWO DOZEN ninth and 10th graders sit around a U-shaped table, laptops at the ready. Kathy Lee, a veteran English and social studies teacher, is prepping them for an ambitious task: devising a plan for the next president’s first 100 days in office. If they do their part, Lee promises, she will do hers: persuading potential Democratic nominee Barack Obama to visit. “Oh, I’m going to get him here. Watch,” she says. “If you don’t ask, you’ll never get.”

After delivering this life lesson, Lee divides the class into two groups to brainstorm about immigration and education policies. The education discussion quickly turns personal. “You expect too much,” 15-year-old Ronece Jackson tells Lee. But there’s no way Lee is going to back down. “My job is to do for you what I did for my own kids,” she says. “I am guilty of setting extremely high expectations. … I’m supposed to challenge you like that.”

When Philadelphia’s $65 million High School of the Future, a partnership between the school district and Microsoft, opened in September 2006, the buzz was mostly about its technological innovations: a laptop for every student, smart cards to open lockers, an Interactive Learning Center in place of a library, and no textbooks to weigh down student backpacks. Certainly, the gleaming-white building with solar panels and rooftop greenery looks nothing like a grim institutional fortress. While its geometric portico and lawn front a street lined with decrepit row houses, windows allow the school’s pastel-tiled corridors to be flooded with light, the bathrooms are immaculate, and the cafeteria resembles a food court.

But educating these students -- most of whom are African- American and low-income -- will take more than computers and clean bathrooms. Personalized attention, project-based learning, and real-world experiences are all integral to the school’s approach. Teachers are rigorously screened for competencies, such as customer focus and dealing with ambiguity, and must be certified in at least two subject areas. Because Microsoft wanted the project to be replicable in other urban districts, students -- called learners -- are picked by lottery, with the proviso that three-quarters must come from the surrounding West Philadelphia neighborhood.

And this means that the school -- which each year admits a ninth-grade class of 170 and now, after attrition, has about 300 students -- has its work cut out for it. La Verne Wiley, the school’s chief learner/principal, says that, on average, the learners have reading and math skills two or three years below their grade levels.

“We’re a work in progress,” says Thomas Emerson, an English and social studies teacher in his first year of teaching. “We have a lot of very intelligent kids in this school. We have a lot of very low-performing kids in this school as well. They are exactly the same people.” The students here could be “very amazing,” Emerson says -- “if only we could unlock [their minds] and teach them what they missed from all those years when they just turned off.”

Interdisciplinary projects, together with laptops, are designed to turn them back on, but the transition has been difficult for some. “First, to be honest, I was a little frustrated because I was used to learning in one specific way,” says Iman Griffin, 15, a second-year learner. “Then, when that changed, it didn’t make any kind of sense to me. It took me a while to really catch up.”

Now she and other students talk excitedly about their projects. For Project Vote, Griffin says, she carefully tracked delegate counts on Super Tuesday, combining math with political science. She has also served as a guide at the Belmont Mansion, a onetime stop on the Underground Railroad, picking up lessons in history, speaking skills, and self-confidence.

Khalesha McKie, 16, proudly explains how she used a digital camera to capture images of overlooked trash for another project, Invisible City. She and her classmates have read The Grapes of Wrath to learn about the Great Depression and the importance of water, studied forensic science to explore identity issues, and translated the United States Constitution into simpler language. “[The teachers] let us rewrite all the amendments -- which was one of the best and worst things they could have done,” says Griffin. “Now we use amendments against them. If they tell us to do something, we say, ‘I have freedom of speech. I can talk about it.’ ”