At Philly 'Future' School, Books Are So 20th Century The School of the Future, a much-anticipated high-tech high school, opened its doors last month in one of Philadelphia's poorer neighborhoods. Designed with input from Microsoft, the school uses the latest technology to teach students the fundamentals.

At Philly 'Future' School, Books Are So 20th Century

At Philly 'Future' School, Books Are So 20th Century

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Freshmen Littleton Hurst and Soleil Widman sit over their school-issued laptops at one of several cafeteria-like tables in the front hallway of the School of the Future. Phyllis Fletcher for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Phyllis Fletcher for NPR

Future School: Fast Facts

Origins: Philadelphia School District CEO Paul Vallas pitched the idea to Microsoft in 2003. At the time, Microsoft was already considering a School of the Future demo project. Company executives decided to make it real within a week of their meeting with Vallas.

Cost: The project cost $61.4 million -- a normal budget for the district's high schools. The district put up the money, and Microsoft provided the technology expertise. The school is looking to build an endowment of $10 million to cover improvements and operating costs in the future. Naming rights for the school and the areas within it are up for sale. Microsoft has purchased naming rights to the school's visitors' center for $100,000.

Student Body: The freshman class consists of 170 students. The school will admit a new freshman class each year; it should reach its capacity of about 750 students when the class of 2010 enters its senior year. More than 98 percent of students are minorities; most live below the federal poverty level.

Classroom Innovations: No pencils, paper or printed textbooks. Chalk and blackboards are out; plasma screens and video projectors are in. Teachers track students' progress and adjust curriculum for individual students with new software.

Tech Toys: Every student gets a laptop. Students have access to digital cameras. Each student ID has an imbedded smart chip. The smart cards track attendance, open lockers and pay for meals. Starting in 2007, the cards will track nutrition information for meals purchased at the school.

Getting In: Students are admitted by lottery. Seventy-five percent of the student body is drawn from the school's surrounding neighborhood in West Philadelphia. The remaining 25 percent comes from other areas. No GPA or coursework requirements. Transfer students must complete an interview.

Getting Out: Aside from completing academic coursework in core subject areas, each student must also apply to college in order to graduate.

The view across the street from the School of the Future. The high school is located in a West Philadelphia neighborhood where 85 percent of the residents live in below the federal poverty level. Phyllis Fletcher for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Phyllis Fletcher for NPR

Principal Shirley Grover says class assignments at the School of the Future try to focus on "real-life problems." Phyllis Fletcher for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Phyllis Fletcher for NPR

An exterior view of the School of the Future. The project cost $61.4 million -- a normal budget for a Philadelphia school district high school. Phyllis Fletcher, NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Phyllis Fletcher, NPR

A much anticipated high-tech high school opened its doors last month in one of Philadelphia's poorer neighborhoods. Known as the School of the Future, the project was designed with help from technology giant Microsoft.

Microsoft Project Manager Mary Cullinane says the goal was to answer the question, "what if?"

"'What if a company like Microsoft and an organization like the School District of Philadelphia came together to build a school of the future? What would it look like?'" Cullinane says.

According to freshman Littleton Hurst, it looks "like Bill Gates' house," with a cafeteria like a restaurant and a gym "like an NBA-size basketball court."

The classrooms have the appearance of corporate meeting rooms -- complete with video projectors. Hurst laughs as he describes the coolest thing: "No pencils, no papers, no books. None."

Just laptops, which are standard issue at the school.

On an early autumn day, Hurst sits in the wide front hallway with his classmate Soleil Widman at one of a half-dozen round tables. Hurst leans into his laptop to show off photos he took for a blog assignment.

"This is my neighborhood," he says. Hurst lives across the street from the school. He narrates as he clicks through the photos on his laptop. "That's our Chinese store... And across the street is Spiro's. You get a cheese steak for, like, $2 there." Hurst and his classmates will write about their neighborhood for the blog, too.

The School of the Future teaches reading, writing and arithmetic, like any other school. The difference is how it's taught. Principal Shirley Grover says the focus is on "real-life problems."

"Adolescents want to be not in their seats, not listening to me or to you," Grover says. "They want to be active, taking life on."

Grover says assignments such as blogging aren't about bells and whistles. They're about finding new ways to teach fundamentals. One question that comes up often: How does she know students in class aren't on their laptops goofing around?

Grover is ready for that one. She says, "My question to you is, how did your teachers make sure that, when you were sitting in the classroom, you weren't goofing around, even though you didn't have a laptop? I think the issues remain the same. In this case, the laptop, sure, it's an invitation to do other things. It's up to us to make sure that the work is meaningful, and that it'll challenge them."

The Philadelphia school district built the school on the same budget it uses for other high schools. Microsoft donated time and expertise to plan the project.

The whole school is hooked up for Wi-Fi. Teachers can check on their students' attendance and grades in other classes anytime with just a few keystrokes.

The physical structure is impressive, too. The bathrooms feature Italian marble purchased on the cheap.

Even the lockers are high-tech. They pop open when a student ID card, equipped with a smart chip, is waved in front of a wall sensor. Freshman Soleil Widman grins as she shows off how it's done.

"See?" she says. "And this is all that's in my locker: my mouse for my laptop, my lotion, a dictionary, a comb and a brush -- which I needed today -- my MP3 player."

All that, and some pencils and pens. Which she doesn't need.