Up on a hill, overlooking the Philadelphia Zoo and a West Philadelphia neighborhood where 85 percent of the people live in poverty, sits a sleek, shiny brand new High School. It is called the Microsoft School of the Future and it is the first one in the world.
The 170 freshmen about to start classes here are not only ready for school, but for the future. They will not use pens, paper or textbooks. Instead, each one will be given a wireless laptop computer, with software created by Microsoft specifically for this school's needs. The programs allow each child to learn at his or her own pace and educators and parents to monitor their progress.
Microsoft has a special interest in this Philadelphia school. It partnered with the school district to design the building and the curriculum, a first for the software giant.
Company Chairman Bill Gates says the Microsoft School of the Future is meant to be the model for struggling education systems around the world. "What this school represents is what is possible when you apply great people, processes and technology to the task of transforming learning," he told a school assembly on opening day, in a recorded video address. "This school has already produced a number of important innovations, including resources that will help schools around the world create a culture of self-improvement and leadership."
The idea of attending a school with such high aspirations was a bit daunting for Ryan Wheeler. "At first I wasn't really too psyched about coming 'cause I wanted to go to a military school," she admits. "I didn't know much about School of the Future so I was like, 'It's new. I don't want to go. I don't know what I will be getting myself into.'" But after she did some research on it, she changed her mind. As she puts it, with a laugh, "I was like, 'Well I'm psyched. I'll go. I'll go.'"
Her classmate, Mahcaiyah Wearing-Gooden, 14, had no doubts about attending the School of the Future. She's wanted to be a climatologist since she was 5 years old and feels sure the opportunities she'll get here will lead her to her dream job. But she has a deeper connection to being part of the next generation of students. "This is our time. This is us. All 170 of us can make a change in this world. And if we do that it can probably be considered a better place."
Over the next four years, Microsoft High's student population will grow to 750 as new freshman classes are added. But the make-up of the student body won't change. Seventy-five percent will come from the surrounding West Philadelphia neighborhood, one of the poorest and most crime-ridden parts of the city. Schools here don't have enough textbooks - let alone computers - and many don't even have heat.
Like all public schools, Microsoft High charges no tuition fees. Unlike most schools, students apply to attend and are chosen by lottery. The 170 students in the first class were among 1500 applicants.
The school of the future is already being replicated in other countries with guidance from Microsoft. Top company executive Craig Mundie says there was always a plan to use this school as a prototype for future endeavors. "This school really represents the benchmark on a global basis that will be used to assess each country's own aspirations about building an educational system for the future of their children and their community."
And the students at the Microsoft School of the Future are expected to lead the way. As their use of the technology and resources provided at this unique school is monitored and analyzed, it will be the teachers and administrators worldwide who are will be learning from them.