THE SCHOOL DAY HERE RUNS from nine a.m. to four p.m., but the school also functions as a community center, open in the early-morning hours and in the evenings. Students without Internet access at home hang around to complete assignments. Parents can go online and check whether homework has been done. And teachers e-mail parents about students’ progress. Volunteer tutors and mentors provide help and encouragement, while both the nearby Philadelphia Zoo and West Park Cultural and Opportunity Center offer extra resources -- and an internship program is also in the works. The aim, says Microsoft’s Partners in Learning academic program manager Stacey Rainey, is to make education “relevant, continuous, and adaptive.” Those are buzzwords that even the students can recite.
That’s the ideal, anyway. In actuality, the school’s administration is in a state of flux (Wiley is the third chief learner in less than two years); tensions sometimes flare between the school district and Microsoft; and the lack of books, though it saves school-district dollars, can be a hardship for teachers and students alike. Without textbooks, says Emerson, “I have to spend my evenings at home looking up all the material I want the kids to use, [and then edit] it myself so it’s on their reading level.” Students, too, have complained that reading long e-books on laptops is less convenient and more taxing than reading the actual books. In response, Wiley says she is ordering texts for literature classes.
And all those laptops can be distracting. When I drop in on Kate Reber’s classroom of first-year learners, she is in the process of deleting games from one boy’s computer. Another student, instead of doing an exercise about alternate energy sources, is watching a video. Griffin explains the temptation she faces: “I do like using the computer, but I’m still a kid, and sometimes kids don’t have much self-control, and we do have Instant Messenger on our computers …”
After two visits, the School of the Future starts to seem like a figure-ground illusion -- an ambiguous image in which the shapes shift as you stare. With its light-filled hallways and ingenious projects, the school can seem like a beacon illuminating the mostly desolate landscape of urban education. But look again and you’re reminded of the imposing challenges it faces.
A “team lab” held one February afternoon in the Interactive Learning Center illustrates both perspectives. In small groups, first-year learners present public service announcements that they’ve crafted about global warming -- mélanges of video, digital photography, music, PowerPoint, and live performance. The spots demonstrate technological competency, environmental awareness, the ability to work in groups, and an occasional spark of humor. But there are also technical glitches and misspelled words. In the audience, one student falls asleep, his arm resting on his laptop; others laugh or chatter, despite a teacher’s repeated admonitions. A girl rests her booted foot on a boy’s thigh, and no one even notices amid the commotion.
It’s still too early to know whether the School of the Future is a useful template for other urban schools. Not until 2009, when in the 11th grade, will students take state-mandated achievement tests, one measure of their progress. And while each 12th grader must apply to college in order to graduate, how many will actually attend and earn a degree?
For 16-year-old Quasan Baker, meeting minority employees from Microsoft during a recent special program has solidified his goal of attending Penn State University and specializing in technology. Fifteen-year-old Quetta Fairy says she is determined to become a lawyer, “because I always argue my point. … I’m a great debater. You can’t tell me I’m wrong when I know I’m right.” If nothing else, it’s clear that the School of the Future is inspiring these kids with the confidence to dream about their futures. Emerson recalls a student who “fought with me day in and day out” until, on a whim, he asked her to serve as a prosecuting attorney for a reenactment of the Emmett Till trial, a famous lynching case that helped launch the civil rights movement. “From that day on,” he says, growing visibly emotional, “she has been engaged. Suddenly, I’m seeing she’s a smart, smart girl, and she’s taking a level of responsibility that reminds me of what I was like in high school. Just that one example is enough to make me teach for another 30 years.”