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School of the future focuses on the basics

By Sarah Hoye, CNN
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Microsoft's School of the Future
  • Microsoft-designed School of the Future opened in Philadelphia in 2006
  • Despite having access to state-of-the-art technology, students initially struggled
  • The school started focusing more on one-to-one relationships
  • The first senior class recently graduated and every graduate has college plans

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- The world was watching in 2006 when the Microsoft-designed School of the Future opened in Philadelphia and attempted to reform education.

Despite having four principals, curriculum overhauls, and student technology gaps, the school graduated its first senior class last week, with every graduate having plans for institutions of higher learning.

"This isn't a school about technology, this is a school about redefining the norm for urban education," said Mary Cullinane, director of innovation for Microsoft Education, who is also the liaison to the school.

"We've had this saying from the very beginning: Money and technology are great, but people are better."

And everything about the state-of-the-art facility, complete with digital whiteboards and streaming video in classrooms, was created to be different from the beginning, too.

The majority-minority $63 million school was erected with school district funds in the tough Parkside neighborhood in West Philadelphia.

The school partnered with Microsoft on new approaches to curriculum, teaching methods and staffing. The school is made up of students chosen by a lottery of public school students, with the majority of them coming from low-income households with limited access to technology and training.

The school struggled in its infancy.

Its first standardized test scores last year were daunting. Less than 8 percent of 11th-graders scored proficient or higher in math, while just over 23 percent scored proficient or higher in reading.

It's back to basics under the watch of Rosalind Chivis, principal for the last two school years. Regardless of the advancements, Chivis says success is in the approach.

"I don't care how good the technology is, I don't care how good the books are, the ancillary materials, if you cannot create a stellar climate conducive to good teaching and learning, it's not going to happen," Chivis said.

"It's about connections, it's about relationships, it's about caring."

Test scores don't tell the whole story of School of the Future, according to Cullinane.

"We wanted to take on all the challenges and still show that you could do it," she said, adding that the school's mission is to challenge the education status quo, all the while doing it under the same conditions as other public schools in the district.

"And today, with 100 percent of these kids having college plans, I think we showed we can do it."

This isn't a school about technology, this is a school about redefining the norm for urban education.
--Mary Cullinane, innovation director for Microsoft Education

The original vision called for a paperless and textbook-free school. Students were to be called learners. They would receive laptops for taking notes and tests and doing homework. Students repeated the school mission "Continuous, Relevant, Adaptive" with ease.

"Things did fall apart here as far as the original vision," said Iman Griffin, a senior and the school president, adding that students do use paper and textbooks now.

"But we aren't broken, we're still good, and I believe that I came out better."

Griffin, one of the 118 students who graduated on June 15, said she plans to attend Indiana University of Pennsylvania to study journalism.

College wasn't always in the future for Mahcaiyah Wearing-Gooden. There were times during high school that she wanted to give up.

She credits the caring staff and individual attention at school with helping to keep her on track.

"When I actually grasped the concept that my future is what I make it, and my future is what I do exactly, I didn't want to fail, I didn't want to give up, I wanted to succeed," said Wearing-Gooden, who plans to attend Green Mountain College in Vermont to study climatology.

"I wanted to be everything that everyone said that I couldn't be."