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Thanks to the quick eye/ear of Judy Marks, Associate Director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, we were alerted to an interesting broadcast about one of our 2006 DesignShare Award winners: The Microsoft School of the Future (Recognized Value Award winner).

She pointed us to a recent episode of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer that focused on the school’s efforts to integrate cutting edge technology into the academic lives of low-income students in Philadelphia. Note: the episode can be downloaded as video or audio presentation as well.

The correspondant starts off with an introduction that gets right to the “impact” question:

West Philadelphia has the reputation of being a rough part of town, not the kind of place that most cities would use to test out a new approach to public education. But this is where the school district has chosen to build what it calls the school of the future. It’s a gleaming $62-million edifice constructed on former park land.

In telling the story of this unique partnership between the City of Philadelphia and Microsoft, the report shares the voices of a wide range of stakeholders. This includes parents and students, which we were most pleased to see, as well as the school’s Chief Learner, Shirley Grover, and representatives of her teaching team. Additionally, Mary Cullinane (who heads Microsoft’s U.S. Partners in Learning initiatives), Bill Gates, and Paul Vallas, CEO of the Philadelphia School System, were also included.

A couple of key sound bytes that caught our attention in particular:

Paul Vallas spoke of the reasons why the city partnered with Microsoft…and what it could provide over time:

It was advantageous to us because, at the end of the day, the human resources is what we’re seeking, and sometimes money can’t buy high-quality human resources. And it’s advantageous to them, because it’s just not about them writing us a check. It’s about them putting some of their best and brightest on a project that is dear to their heart and that they’re committed to.

Shirley Grover talking about partnerships:

The partnering on the outside is important to sort of have us — we’ve always looked inwardly as educators. It’s sort of like been our little world, and we’ve looked in. We thought we knew the answers to what needed to be.

And I think, over the years, what’s happened is we’ve recognized the fact that we need to look outwardly, also, that is has to be dynamic, both inside and outside, because we’re shaping kids for the world and not just for education.

Ryan Wheeler, student, discusses the culture of success that is already taking shape here:

They want you to succeed, so they’re like just, “Go ahead. You can do it. You can do it.” They give us time. They want us to succeed, so they keep pressuring us to do — because they’re determined for us to take another step higher.

Diane Jass Ketelhut, Temple University, speaks as to the challenges that present itself when looking at a forward-thinking model like this school, and what lessons and long-term impact can be taken away for an entire city and school system:

If I was a student and I went to a school that had been built 50 years ago, was run down, and I walked in everyday, the message I’m receiving is, “My school doesn’t matter. Therefore, I must not matter.”

I walk into a school that’s $65 million was spent on, and I say, “Wow, I was selected for this school. I must matter. And, therefore, this is an important place to be, and I have to live up to the expectations of me.”

And so it’s very difficult to know whether what they’re doing is because of their educational model, the business model, the technology, or just the fact that somebody spent time preparing and creating a good environment for learning.

We also appreciate the paradox of creating a state-of-the-art school for over $60 million that can serve only a fraction of a city’s student population. Diane Jess Ketelhut speaks to this in ways that are hard to ignore:

We have a school district here in Philadelphia that has 200,000 students in it, and yet they’ve spent $65 million fixing up one school for 500 students. While that’s great and this is a model, is it a model for the rest of the Philadelphia schools?

It’s unlikely they can afford to do that with the other 40 or 50 schools that are in the school district. And therefore, one wonders whether this is money well-spent from that aspect, whereas what could we have done to raise the level for all students somewhat, as opposed to a lot for a small group of students?

What do you think?

Will the Microsoft School for the future — as an architectural and educational model — end up having a scaled impact on communities around the US and the world, or will it be seen ultimately as a profound experiment for 500 students alone?

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