Extending its reach in public education, Microsoft Corp. says it will help design a new $46 million public high school in Philadelphia that will embed computer technology everywhere–from classrooms and administrative offices to the desk of the football coach.

The school is still in the earliest stages of planning and won’t open until 2006. But administrators said they envision a paperless building where students study in online textbooks, teachers quiz their classes on laptops, and automated systems order cafeteria supplies as they are depleted.

“It will be a school of the future,” said the 200,000-student district’s chief executive, Paul Vallas.

Details of how the district’s partnership with Microsoft will work are still being negotiated, but a few ground rules already in place will limit the company’s involvement.

Philadelphia won’t be required to buy Microsoft products; technology will be selected through an open bidding process. The software giant won’t be involved in teaching classes or managing the school once it opens.

The company also isn’t planning any major donations of equipment or cash, officials said. The school district will pick up the entire $46 million cost of the school itself.

Instead of free hardware and software, Microsoft’s main contribution to the project will be expertise, said the company’s executive director of learning technologies, Wanda Miles.

The company plans to hire a project manager who will lead a committee in developing curriculum, implementing administrative systems, designing teacher training programs, and advising school officials on how technology can best help students learn.

“We’re not sure yet whether that means having the students work on Tablet PCs, or carry PDAs [personal digital assistants] or something else,” Miles said. “We’re looking at technology in 2006.”

Microsoft has been working hard to deepen its share of the market for educational tools, an area where it has long lagged behind rivals like Apple Computer Inc.

Joe Wilcox, an analyst for Jupiter Research, pointed out that such projects give Microsoft a chance to promote its systems, build brand loyalty among young students, and use the school as a laboratory for future development of educational products.

“The one caveat is, school budgets are tight,” Wilcox said. “The schools in the county where I live in Maryland are pretty well off, and they’re still using computers that are five, six, seven, or eight years old. I’m wondering what Philadelphia will be able to afford.”

Several other outside companies and institutions have been brought in to help rebuild Philadelphia’s troubled schools. For example, the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia’s major science museum, recently announced plans to help the district open a new science high school.

Also, K12 Inc., a Virginia company founded by former Education Secretary Bill Bennett that has become one of the nation’s largest managers of “virtual schools,” is developing a web-based teaching program for a new city elementary school scheduled to open in 2004.

Vallas said he hoped the school being planned with Microsoft will act as a model for future school construction and a magnet for students interested in technology. He said the school would open with about 700 students and wouldn’t require an entrance exam.

“What we are trying to do is expand the options for K-12 students and give them more school choices,” Vallas said. “Our goal is to build 11 new high schools like this.”

See these related links:

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Philadelphia School District
http://www.philsch.k12.pa.us