Next Big Thing: 'School of the Future'

High school students in West Philadelphia are starting their year at the one-year-old School of the Future. Microsoft's Mary Cullinane worked with Philadelphia to bring high-tech education to the city. Cullinane discusses the school and why it's so special.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

I'm Lynn Neary, in for Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead: They are the world's most powerful women, but do you know who they are? We'll tell you who's on the list.

But first, if you could design the ideal school, what would it look like? To find out, you may want to go to West Philadelphia. It's home to the aptly named School of the Future, which boasts laptops for every student, a green-friendly design, and state-of-the-art classroom technology. Its students are inner city kids. About 85 percent of the freshmen come from families living below the poverty line. School officials hope that this new campus, which starts its second fall term on Monday, will be a model for other districts around the nation.

It's our Next Big Thing in education, and here to tell us more is Mary Cullinane. She worked for Microsoft as program manager for the School of the Future, and she joins us from our NPR bureau in New York. Mary, welcome.

Ms. MARY J. CULLINANE (Director, U.S. Partners in Learning, Microsoft Corporation): Thanks for having me. It's great to be here and be able to talk about this.

NEARY: Well, tell us a little bit about how this idea for this School of the Future came about, and how does it differ from traditional schools?

Ms. CULLINANE: My boss was having a traditional meeting with the School District of Philadelphia, and the CEO at the time was a gentleman by the name of Paul Vallas, and he came to the school district wanting to address some of the challenges that they had from a building perspective. There have been no new buildings in Philadelphia built for schools in about 30 years. And so he wanted to build a school, and in the middle of the meeting, said to Anthony Salcedo, why don't you build a school with us? We chatted about it, and it actually went all the way up to Bill Gates, and we got his sign-off in about a week and a half, and we said, yes. We'll do it.

NEARY: What role exactly did Microsoft play in developing the school? Because it wasn't - even that was not really traditional. It wasn't really a question of just donating money or equipment. It was different.

Ms. CULLINANE: Our contribution was going to be human capital. Our contribution was going to be Microsoft people helping to think about this question of what would a school of the future look like. And we were able to take part in all elements of the design, whether it be the building itself, the selection of the architect - how do we bring strategic process and rigor to that thinking? We got to get involved in, you know, how will the community themselves be involved in this school? And so it was much more than just a story about software or a story about laptops. It's really looking at how do you redesign a learning environment, and what needs to go into that in order for that to occur?

NEARY: What's the cost for this kind of a school?

Ms. CULLINANE: That's the million-dollar question, right? In the Philadelphia area, in the northeast area, the school building cost about $60 million to build. The good news is that the school district paid for this completely on a traditional budget. So it was not a Microsoft investment, so that other schools are saying, well, sure, Microsoft gave you money. If they gave us money, we could do it, too. But we didn't spend, you know, any more on this school as they have budgeted for other new buildings that they're building in the district.

NEARY: And talking about the community, why West Philadelphia? Why did that seem like the place to create this School of the Future, as opposed to elsewhere in the city?

Ms. CULLINANE: All around the country, there are these high-tech highs or examples of very unique learning environments. But traditionally, those attempts or those projects, the students are selected. So they represent a subset of an academic population, usually gifted students. We were very interested in doing this project in a - just a traditional neighborhood. So this would be neighborhood kids who come to the school with all different student acumens, and come to the school at different reading levels, and it's really - you know, the challenges that urban education is facing around the country, we wanted this population to represent.

NEARY: You know, along with - you mentioned, kids might have different reading levels. I would think a lot of kids would also have different skills in terms of their exposure to this kind of technology. You're starting a new school year right now. You've got kids coming to the school for the first time. Are some kids a little daunted by all this technology? How do you deal with that?

Ms. CULLINANE: Yeah, I think the community reflects the challenges in the broader community. So we'll have some kids who - this is like turning on a, you know, a switch to them. This is like a toaster. And then we'll have some kids in which this is new. This could be, you know, the fact that they have access to their own computer, this may be the first thing that they've been given like that. So there is a great elasticity to the technical acumen of these kids come to school with.

But the school is all about teaching kids to have a passion for learning. It's not so much about teaching kids a specific skill set. And so I think that environment has allowed, you know, for kids who aren't comfortable with technology when they come in to get comfortable, because there's going to be a lot things in their lives that they're going to encounter that they're going to need to adapt to.

NEARY: For those of you who are just joining us, I'm Lynn Neary sitting in for Michel Martin. And we are talking with Mary Culinane, Microsoft's director for its U.S. Partners in Learning project. We're talking about the School of the Future in Philadelphia. How do you assess the success of the school?

Ms. CULLINANE: The learners will be - are held accountable to the Pennsylvania State standards, and they will take the state tests that they need to take in their junior year or their third year in the school. And so they have to, you know, meet those traditional requirements, because this is a project-based learning environment. There is no math class, and then you go to English class. And then you go to history class. What these kids do is there is an essential question that they answer.

There's a project that they do that incorporates all these different disciplines into that question. There's different types of ways to assess that that are very performance-focused. So it's a lot of performance-based management, performance-based assessment along with, then, these kids having to take the standardized assessment in those third years.

NEARY: Mary, tell us a little bit about the role of smart cards. Tell me a little bit about those.

Ms. CULLINANE: There are many instances in which a student in their daily path encounters something in which they need to be recognized for who they are. Information needs to be gathered about what they're doing, and access to space needs to be provided. And the smart card technology allows you to do that.

So when the students, the learners, come in to through school, they swipe their smart card and their attendance is recorded. A picture comes up of them, so we're sure that the card's with the right person. When they go into the food court, they are able to swipe their smart card so that they can pay for their lunches.

If learners one access their lockers, they take a smart card and they swipe it along a reader and that - just their locker opens. So, you know, information on what the kids are eating can be gathered via the smart card. It can be compared to - you know, food intake can now be correlated with student achievement. We also have a fitness center in the school, which will be recording their cardiovascular activities. So now you can look at what are the kids doing from exercise perspective? Is there any correlation there with their - with how they're doing in school?

NEARY: The school's gone through one full school year. What kind of feedback have you gotten from students, and from their parents as well?

Ms. CULLINANE: It's a neat place. You know, when you go there, the learners there, they're proud of being there. They're proud of their community. It's been amazing to be part of this and watch these 14-year-olds grow in, you know, a very short time period. We've had visitors from over 50 countries come and visit the school. And the kids take them out on tour and they, you know, they talk to ministers of education. They talk to business leaders. And these are kids who, you know, to be given that opportunity or to be placed in that position is something that they never thought was in their future.

NEARY: Is it realistic to think that this school could be a model for other schools around the country and around the world, if you're getting visitors internationally?

Ms. CULLINANE: Yeah. I fundamentally believe that the answer to that question is yes. And the reason why I believed that is because we did - we focused on a process. We focused on what are the essential questions that we need to ask in order to create a learning environment that supports the 21st century? Microsoft is - has leveraged this process that we've gone through, and we now will be working with 12 countries from around the world in the innovative schools program, where they will go through this process. And some of them are merging markets, and some of them are developing markets. And so their answers will going to look very, very different. But the process is what we focused on, not the answers.

NEARY: And is Microsoft working with other school districts in this country as well?

Ms. CULLINANE: Yes, very much so. I do think that this is a possibility. And I do think that it demonstrates the power of public-private partnerships in addressing our country's educational challenges.

NEARY: Mary Cullinane is the director of the U.S. Partners in Learning Program at Microsoft.

Thanks for being with us today, Mary.

Ms. CULLINANE: Thank you very much for having us. We appreciate it.

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