Philly school offers hand-up

Molly Grace

When students reflect upon their high school experiences, many may remember sitting through seven or eight fifty-minute class periods each day.

For the majority of high school students, experiences were similar: certain busy-work homework students had to complete, certain classes that no one was interested in but were required to take, certain tests students had to pass before they could graduate.

In this rote existence, it has been argued that few high school students have the opportunity to study what they are interested in, leaving them to question the relevancy of their educational career.

But imagine a high school without bells, without multiple-choice tests, without textbooks shoved into lockers, without required classes, without the hierarchical structure in which the teacher, the source of all knowledge, stands in front of a chalkboard, imparting his or her wisdom to the “children” sitting at desks who furiously take notes that they will have to spit back to the teacher on a quiz later in the week.

Imagine a world in which high school learning revolves around the student, in which he or she has the freedom to largely determine his or her course of study.

For 170 selected west Philly students, this imaginary high school experience will become a reality today, when the Microsoft School of the Future (SOTF) officially opens its doors.

On a world-stage, clearly visible to the scrutiny of critics from all backgrounds, Principal Shirley Grover and the rest of the SOTF educators will attempt to demonstrate that a non-traditional and innovative style of education is not only capable but is actually more beneficial when it comes to serving student needs in the 21st century.

SOTF is not a magnet school, Rather, just like any other Philadelphia district school, the introductory class of freshmen at SOTF (75 percent hailing from west Philly and 25 percent from other Philadelphia neighborhoods) has been chosen from a random sampling of students.

Together, the class – predominately composed of low-income, minority students – reflects the typical population found city-wide throughout the Philadelphia School District.

Kate Hayes (’04) landed a spot as a SOTF counselor and is one of the thirteen educators at the new school.

According to Hayes, SOTF is committed to making learning “continuous, relevant, and adaptive” to each of its students, or rather, to its “learners.”

To reflect the more democratic atmosphere of the school, the traditional titles of student and teacher have been replaced. “Learners” and “educators” have been substituted instead.

In line with the vision of student-empowered learning, the educational programs at SOTF are designed to put each learner in the “driver’s seat” of his or her life.

Surrounded by the members of his or her human net – composed of his or her strategic advisor from SOTF, a mentor from the community, a Villanova tutor, and family members – learners have the opportunity to take responsibility for their future. One of the aims of this independent environment is to enable learners to make choices that will largely determine their educational careers.

Rather than learning in a typical classroom setting, the curriculum will be interdisciplinary and project-based. The flexibility of the school day allows for daily schedules to be just that: daily.

Each day is uniquely scheduled and is designed to reflect the individual needs of the students, displaying a combination of group learning, one-on-one assessment with the strategic advisor, internships with mentors in the community and time for independent exploration.

Furthermore, achievement will not be assessed through traditional forms like grades and tests. Instead, each project will culminate in a “performance” of learning: through a variety of media in an open forum, the learners will be able to present, demonstrate and discuss what he or she has learned to the SOTF population.

For example, the first project will allow learners to explore the issue of “identity” from various angles, enabling them to begin the process of self-discovery so crucial to their personal growth and development as well as to the learning process. At the end of the project, the learners will have the opportunity to present this newfound self-identity to their peers through a wide variety of media, such as a slide-show, piece of artwork, movie, dance, song, photograph, or poem. The possibilities are endless.

Being partnered with a company like Microsoft certainly has its perks, as well. Promethean whiteboards have replaced chalkboards. Each learner now possesses a personalized laptop computer that he or she can take home and bring back to school.

Digital media will largely replace paper-based textbooks. An evening online tutoring relationship is being developed with Villanova students. Each student also has a card, much like the Wildcard, that grants them access to the building, computer and print labs, cafeterias, gym and other rooms since the school simultaneously acts as a community center that is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

As a school within the Philadelphia School District, learners will still have to demonstrate their knowledge on state-wide standardized tests in order to graduate. SOTF has also ensured that each of its learners will apply for college.