High School of the Future: A learning experience

Nine years in, the school is undergoing a reboot. Ambitious plans for using technology have been hindered by school and District upheaval.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

When math teacher Eros Uthman-Olukokun joined the High School of the Future faculty in the summer of 2013, he was overwhelmed.

Every student had a laptop, and all academic materials were online. Accustomed to paper, pencils, and textbooks, Uthman-Olukokun suddenly had to do everything differently.

He had transferred from the closed University City High School to HSOF, which was established in 2006 with the help of Microsoft to pioneer cutting-edge technology in an urban school.

With help from fellow teachers, Uthman-Olukokun plowed through the first year and soon eagerly embraced the school’s high-tech capabilities. He spent last summer learning how to set up a “flipped classroom,” with students taking notes from video lectures watched at home so that teachers can devote in-class time to projects and creative activities.

But when Uthman-Olukokun came back to school in September 2014, he and his colleagues were shocked to learn that there were not enough working laptops to go around. For the first time since HSOF opened, the school would not have a one-to-one laptop program. And because students couldn’t take the computers home, Uthman-Olukokun’s plans for a flipped classroom were useless.

Uthman-Olukokun’s experience illustrates the difficulties of bringing cutting-edge technology to urban schools and sustaining it – especially when a district, like Philadelphia, is in constant turmoil.

The original vision of HSOF, located in a sleek, $63 million building on Girard Avenue across from the zoo, was to transform teaching and learning through technology and put city students more on par with their wealthy peers. Led by a core group of committed teachers, HSOF has made important inroads since it opened.

But it has been plagued by instability – six different principals, six different heads of the District. And there are other issues. The convoluted hiring and placement system for teachers doesn’t always result in the recruitment of tech-savvy educators dedicated to the model. And many students come to the citywide admissions school with low skills and other needs that technology alone cannot address.

Most recently, the merger with University City High, closed as part of a bitterly fought districtwide downsizing, upended HSOF just as it found its footing, teachers said.

“The school was project-based, inquiry-based; all that stuff was going on,” said John Romani, the technology coordinator and a social studies teacher in his third year at HSOF.

But when the District sent hundreds of University City students and some of their teachers to HSOF, it did little to ease the transition or facilitate the blending of two very different cultures.

“The school nearly doubled in size, and we got no additional resources,” Romani said.

They muddled through 2013-14 with enough functional equipment, but the laptop program fell apart this school year because the cash-strapped District never fixed broken computers or replaced obsolete ones. And because all academic work was done online, the school has no textbook budget. Teachers had to forage in District storage facilities for curricular materials.

HSOF was up for a grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership, teachers said, but that fell through.

Ready to reboot

(Photo: Harvey Finkle)

Now, the school is in the reboot stage, with an MIT-educated principal leading a strategic planning process to rethink its mission and the use of technology. It is reaching out anew to partners for help, including Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and Comcast, and is hoping for significant investments.

New principal Richard Sherin, recruited from Maryland, said that the year is being welcomed as an “opportunity to get back to the grassroots of teaching and learning … putting our practices in order and really ironing out the curriculum.

“We’ve embraced being in a rebuilding mode.”

To be sure, the school still has technology. Teachers use software like Microsoft OneNote, which allows for communication with students and for work to be submitted digitally. Students can access their digital portfolios anywhere, even at home, which several teachers said helps with attendance and lateness issues.

Many classrooms are equipped with Promethean boards and clickers that allow teachers to get instant, simultaneous answers from students.

But now carts of laptops move from class to class, no different from the situation at many other schools, and teachers have to carefully plan which lessons will use them.

In addition, Romani said that not all teachers are on the technology bandwagon. HSOF is a “site selection” school, meaning that teachers must interview for vacancies, but it doesn’t always happen that way if deadlines are missed. And if a school loses teachers due to an enrollment decline, the transfers or layoffs are done by seniority – and often a technology-savvy younger staff member goes.

With University City closing, teachers had the “right to follow” their students. Some, like Uthman-Olukokun, adjusted. Others, however, didn’t buy in to the school’s concept.

“They say, ‘I don’t check my email,’” Romani said.

When it was established, HSOF was to build the curriculum around real-world situations and learning based on inquiry, problem-solving, and multi-disciplinary projects, with the student as “creator” rather than as receptor and regurgitator of information.

“That is still a part of the vision,” Sherin said. But it has to bend to the reality of what students need.

“With all due respect” to those who thought students could “go out in the community and solve real-world problems [while] struggling with the basic skills … well, that’s foolishness,” he said. “You still have to begin with a solid academic program that engages the learners in exactly what they’re going to need to be college- and career-ready.”

The school is close to restoring the one-to-one program, but is being more intentional. Technology is “what [students] are used to … and that’s how they learn,” Sherin said. But giving them devices “without really understanding what it is you want them to learn, and what it is you want them to do with the technology – well, then, you just have kids with toys.”

Another attempt

Teacher Thomas Gaffey has helped start Building 21 after seven years at High School of the Future. (Photo: Allison Welton)

Thomas Gaffey has thought a lot about this. He arrived at HSOF in 2007, right out of graduate school, as a math teacher and technology coordinator. Last school year, drawn to a new challenge, he left to help start Building 21, one of the District’s three new innovative high schools established to offer students a more engaging educational model.

At Building 21, which opened this year with 130 9th graders in a former elementary school in North Philadelphia, he is motivated by the same impulses that attracted him to HSOF.

“I want to maximize the time that students are creating, rather than doing what the teacher tells [them] to play the game of school,” he said. “They should be creating art, publications, websites, that’s what people do in real life.”

Each student has a Chromebook, and work is done digitally. There are no textbooks and little paper.

He is also using technology to “make the learning process transparent” by replacing the traditional and often meaningless A-F grading system with a system that tells students exactly where they are on a series of competencies and skills.

“You can’t do that without using lots of data and crunching that data in a way that students, teachers, and parents can understand,” he said.

Gaffey is zealous about reducing the digital divide between these students and those in wealthy suburbs, and about using technology to help them explore their interests in a way that will keep them in school.

“We know that letting students explore their passions and giving them opportunities based on their interests increases engagement and reduces dropout rates,” he said.

Building 21 is benefiting from the experiences of Gaffey and Thomas Emerson, another veteran HSOF teacher who moved with him.

Both Gaffey and Emerson said that the lesson of HSOF is about trying and failing, but also constantly improving and evolving, like technology itself. They said that their experiences will help in figuring out Building 21.

At HSOF, “We always had the flexibility to try and fail, and then start over again,” Emerson said. “We didn’t always achieve the starting goals, but we did an amazing job of giving kids an education that they would not have gotten.”

Sherin, HSOF’s principal, shares that view. The reboot this year is giving the school a chance to reach higher, he said.

“I’d rather be rebuilding so we can be great [over the long term] than just be good and continue to be good,” he said. “We want to be great at what we do.”