This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Starting a little more than a year ago, I got involved in a project sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute to compile a book about Philadelphia’s School of the Future, the partnership between Microsoft and the District to create a new kind of urban high school.
Plagued by leadership turnover and hampered by its admirable commitment to being a neighborhood rather than a magnet school, SOF has had its struggles in trying to break the mold.
Although it recruited within the parameters of the Philadelphia system, it landed a young, dynamic team of educators. Many of the new, first-time teachers on the staff have resumes that look very much like Teach for America recruits, except that they have made the career commitment to be teachers. They and others have worked very hard to create a new model that fundamentally alters the high school experience for urban youth to make it more relevant and engaging. They have done some remarkable things.
But with disappointing test scores, the pressure has been consistent to pull back and adopt a more conventional approach.
As the article points out, true innovation is very difficult. I think this story has important lessons for “turnaround,” even though SOF is a start-up school. Microsoft is not a “school manager,” but instead a partner in an effort to create an engaging and progressive curriculum that takes advantage of the latest technology.
The idea, much like Parkway in the 1970’s, was to reshape the urban high school experience for the typical student – and do it within the system, not outside of it. In its own way, again like Parkway, it aspired to be a "school without walls," by taking full advantage of our virtual world and promoting a concept of education that was not contained by the school walls but engaged fully with its surrounding community through real-world projects.
I tried to engage Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to talk about SOF and the implications of its experiences for promoting real school reform. Disappointingly, she never found the time.