PHILADELPHIA—It’s no secret that the city’s schools are in trouble. With a heavily defunded public-school sector, a budget shortfall, and a yet unpassed state budget, there’s simply not enough money to go around, and it’s unclear when, or if, that will change. So what’s a city to do?
Philadelphia thought maybe it had an answer when in 2006, the School of the Future (SoF) opened its doors. Even though the school district had more money back then, trying to create innovative streams of funding was still a central task. SoF was established via a partnership with Microsoft, and the idea was to create a technology-centered learning environment (all laptops and WiFi, no more textbooks) that would give the city’s students the same advantages as their peers at more affluent schools, all with an initial financial boost from one of the largest technology companies in the world. From there the school would then be able to build off its own success using technology guidance and gifts from Microsoft, but relying mostly on the district for its day-to-day budget.
Some of the benefits of that founding infusion are still readily apparent. When I ask people about their thoughts on the school they talk about how beautiful the building and its campus are. And the school is beautiful. The building is bright and well lit. It has more in common with modern architecture on well-endowed college campuses than it does with most of the city’s old fortress-like school buildings. A beautiful building alone isn’t enough to create the change that Philadelphia or its students need, but Richard Sherin, the school’s principal, argues that it’s a start. The kids who come to this school are from all over the city. Many sit on SEPTA buses for long stretches, coming from neighborhoods where things aren’t nice, or new, or beautiful. “It’s a place that’s supposed to instill a little bit of reverence and make you feel good about where you are.”
But when I press people about their views on academics at the school, they tend to shrug.
Admission to the school is still in high demand. Sherin says that it continually receives among the most applications in the district. (The school accepts applications from almost all students provided they haven’t failed two or more classes. A lottery decides final admission.) Test scores, which Sherin is adamant are a poor way to measure progress, are a mixed bag. Last year, the students outperformed the district average in some statewide exams, like algebra, but underperformed in both biology and literature. There are major achievements though: The school has a 70 percent graduation rate—well above many district counterparts. Daily attendance and college enrollment are also higher here.
Since opening, the School of the Future has added HP and Promethean to its list of partners. Each partner has established a giving relationship with the school, donating laptops or software for teachers and students to integrate into learning. But already, the reliance on technology has become a bit of a double-edged sword. With all the money problems, the technology that was once a selling point of the school can now be a liability, Sherin told me. Everything from the school’s fancy locker system to the toilets are electronic and require special maintenance, upkeep, or extra care in order to function properly. “But there’s no maintenance or upkeep money in my budget,” Sherrin says. “So we do our own independent fundraising to try to get the things we need.”