My High School Experience – the Second Time Around
I graduated from Harrisburg high school in 1991. Like many graduates before me, I walked out the doors for the final time, thankful to be out of there. So, imagine my surprise when, 15 years later, I’m asked by my employer, Microsoft to go back to high school.
In 2003, Microsoft and the Philadelphia School District entered into a partnership to design a public high school in West Philadelphia, the heart of one of Philadelphia’s most impoverished areas. This partnership was to bring forward some of the best thinking from the education and business communities to design a learner-centered environment supported by technology. The School of the Future, as it is called, opened in September 2006. I want to reiterate, public, not private, not charter school nor special admit. Learners are selected via lottery, with no academic prerequisites, to attend.
That same year the school opened, USA Today published a list of the top 50 largest school districts in Americaand their drop out percentages to highlight the challenges facing large districts. Philadelphia was number eight, with a drop-out rate of 55.5%.Another article posted on the World Socialist Website (https://wsws.org) reveals differences in graduation rates between urban and suburban schools in several major cities. Philadelphia’s statistics showed a 49.2% graduation rate in urban schools vs. 82.4% in suburban schools. If one wanted to impact change, Philadelphia was certainly a district to be in. For me, the School of the Future was definitely the right choice which was confirmed the day I arrived and saw the abandoned buildings surrounding the pristine new school.
Now looking back 3 years, I was so naïve to think that graduating kids in a public high school full of great educators, a supportive community, and a vibrant, new, safe environment, the likes that West Philadelphia has never seen, would be easy. I’m here to affirm and confirm that it has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
This year, on June 15th2010, we graduated our first senior class. I say we, because through my interactions with every learner and educator in this school I have become part of its culture, part of the community here, who day after day face the many challenges that these learners bring to school with them, none of them being technology related challenges. To the many critics who ask “where is your success at School of the Future, are kids learning?” I say this; we are graduating 117 kids out of the original 156, and 100% of the 117 have gained acceptance to at least one postsecondary institution. That is 117 successes.
My high school education the second time around has come from repeated interactions with the students. They taught me that getting to school is often the first of many daily challenges students face. They taught me that positive interactions with adults and having a sense of belonging in the school have a stronger impact on staying in school than cool technology. And they taught me time and again that to reach ones goals you can never give up. As I contemplate my walk through those doors one final time, the greatest lesson learned is to know what is worth caring about:
I learned we must care enough to recognize that every learner doesn’t come from a two parent home, if they even have a place to call home.
I learned we must care enough to recognize that a learner hasn’t eaten a decent meal in a week because their parents can’t afford to keep the lights on let alone put food on the table.
I learned we must care enough to know that the reason a learner stays late afterschool is because they may be too afraid to go home to abusive foster parents.
I learned we must care enough to not start school at 7:30 or 8:00 for the ‘convenience of adults’.
I learned we must care enough to not dismiss researchthat says starting school later yields positive results.
I learned we must care enough to recognize a learner who isn’t raising their hand in class isn’t doing so because they don’t want to participate, it’s because they can only read at a 3rd grade reading level.
I learned we must care enough to know that they DO care what their peersthink of them.
I learned we must care enough to not just pass learners along grade to grade because they’re nice.
I learned we must care enough to identify learners with learning disabilities AND to provide real support services not just doctored paperwork.
I learned we must care enough to not punish behavior but to also understand the factors that led to the behavior.
I learned we must care enough to change old policies that were written a long time ago for a different type of learner.
I learned we must care enough to embrace new ways of teaching.
I learned we must care enough to embrace technology, not shut it out.
I learned we must care enough to understand the power of social networking and that it is here to stay and not just a passing fad.
I learned we must care enough to praise good educators and remove bad ones.
I learned we must care enough to challenge irrelevant curriculumthat doesn’t excite and motivate students.
I learned we must care enough to call, page, email, or text a parent and if that doesn’t work care enough to drive to a scary neighborhood and to knock on their door.
I learned we must care enough to embrace sexual, racial and social differences, even in high school.
I learned we must care enough to provide a safe and healthy environmentfor them to flourish.
I learned we must care enough to change.
When I took this challenge three years ago I asked what should I do to be successful at this job, and I’ll never forget what my Director said to me, she said “whatever you do, as long as it benefits these kids, you won’t be wrong.” I’ve personally visited colleges with these learners, worked with parents, helped fill out college applications, sat through reading tests, and oh yeah, taught them a little about technology. So, I have to apologize if you thought this article would be about how Microsoft technology changed the School of the Future, when in fact it’s more about how the School of the Future changed a Microsoft person. When someone asks me what success have you had at the School of the Future? What have YOU learned? I can proudly say, I’ve done everything in this job with these kids in mind, and because of that, I’ve helped THEM succeed, but I’ve also learned that WE can do so much more.
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