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Last Updated: Friday, 27 July 2007, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
Microsoft's state education revolution
By Ian Hardy
Click's North America technology correspondent

The state run high school system in America is often viewed as under-funded and over-crowded, especially in large urban cities such as Philadelphia.

School of the Future, Philadelphia
Parents have not been put off by Microsoft's involvement

So when Microsoft announced its intention to join up with the city school district and bring all its resources and software know-how there was a mixture of shock and surprise from across the community

But one year on all seems to be going well.

West Philadelphia is a place of high crime rates and low incomes, the last place you would expect to find a new bright white gleaming school building packed with technology.

There are digital writing boards, built-in audio systems, auditoriums that swivel into place and lots more.

Controversial combination

"In the gym there are cameras with which we are able to capture kids' games. So the next day the kids can deconstruct the game by watching it and better their skills," said High School principal Shirley Grover.

"We can also capture their best shot or pass, which helps us build portfolios for universities."

Every student is given a laptop and homework is e-mailed to them

There is hardly a book in sight.

Every student is issued a laptop and not much else to complete their studies. Homework projects are e-mailed to all the students, and their parents.

Every digital mark made on the board is downloadable to the family home.

What makes this possible is a partnership with Microsoft - a rare and potentially controversial combination of public tax payer money and private enterprise.

Microsoft's Mary Cullinane said: "The reality is we have a very vested interest in our education system. We will be the organisation that hires these kids, we are the organisations that economies are built around. So these kids need to be successful.

"But we're not educators. So we need to work out what is the appropriate contribution and how can we support their endeavours. That's what this place is trying to do."

Life-changing opportunity

Parents are not put off by corporate involvement.

More than 9,000 applications came in this year alone for 175 places.

Academically gifted pupils were not given priority. For many youngsters getting in is like winning a Willy Wonka golden ticket.

The school has wi-fi available everywhere

Jessica Nichols, like most of the students, had never even touched a laptop, let alone owned one before she won a place. And she is well aware that this opportunity could change her life forever.

"It's not just another school. It's THE school, and it's all about new beginnings," she said.

"When you live in a neighbourhood like this, when you're dealing with the schools that you're coming from, with little money and text books from 25 years ago with pages missing, you realise what you really want and need for your future to go on and be successful.

"This is a school that said it would help you, and it really does."

When students turn up first thing in the morning they use their ID cards to get into the school - the time is recorded of course. And they need it to access their locker. It is even used in the cashless school cafeteria.

In other schools the bullies' favourite target is lunch money.

The cards also keep track of the foods eaten and calories consumed. But being in a technologically advanced environment, with wi-fi available everywhere for example, does raise some concerns.

Global plans

Websites like YouTube and MySpace have been blocked.

"A lot of the kids do get distracted. I know that I would have been horribly distracted at 14 or 15 if I'd been given the same opportunity," said John Disston, a teacher at the school.

School of the Future, Philadelphia
The experiment is being examined by other US school districts

"But with this generation their brains seem to be structured much more readily to multi-task."

There are other issues that are constantly debated around the school and amongst parents - does a Microsoft culture, which includes hiring practices, lead to a more efficient school system?

Is it a good idea to rely on the internet to supply information to parents at home, some of whom cannot even afford telephones?

But with student attendance rates now at 93% compared with 60% for the school district as a whole, there is overwhelming support for the school from almost every direction.

"We wouldn't enter into a programme where we would get five years down the road and said 'hey, we made a mistake'," Gregory Thornton, Chief Academic Officer of the School District of Philadelphia, said.

"We're watching this very closely, looking at key performance indicators, and making mid-course corrections as we go along to ensure student success.

"Every indicator that we look at today, from teacher attendance to student attendance, to formative assessments indicates that we are on the right track of changing the lives of young people in the City of Philadelphia."

The educational experiment is being examined closely by other American school districts, many of which are failing badly.

And since the project began the world has also been watching. The School of the Future receives visitors from around the globe frequently and Microsoft recently announced plans to take the concept worldwide.

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