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Members of the Philadelphia education elite came together last night to discuss ways to effectively spend the city's proposed $1.5 billion for capital improvements.

The Franklin Conference on School Design held its first of four community sessions at World Cafe Live on Penn's campus.

Penn Praxis Executive Director Harris Steinberg said that the William Penn Foundation had asked the University to host a series of public meetings to provide an opportunity for the city to think about the development of schools.

"The meetings provide a chance for us to discuss the interlocking relationships between education, physical and community design," said Steinberg, who was one of the organizers of the event.

Speakers such as University President Amy Gutmann, Philadelphia University President and Philadelphia School Reform Commission member James Gallagher and Director of Capital Projects for the School district of Philadelphia Pat Henwood spoke about the future of the city's schools.

Following the speeches, a panel consisting of members of educational architecture firms and other education experts discussed new ways of looking at school development.

Steven Bingler and Bobbie Hill of architecture firm Concordia LLC described the current development of schools as "one-size-fits-all, factory-sized planning" but presented the school district's new capital improvement plan as a chance for Philadelphia to break out of that isolated style.

Bingler and Hill challenged the several hundred audience members to imagine what schools could be if "we were to do it differently."

Bingler spoke more specifically about Concordia's model of connecting schools with the organs of cities and making "schools the centers of community."

Fellow educational architect Frank Kelly expanded upon Bingler and Hill's challenge by pointing out how many of the nation's current educational practices are silly, outdated and ineffective.

As one example, Kelly pointed out that the nation's current nine-month school year was based on the agrarian calendar. And as one example of how ineffective the current system is, Kelly stated that less than 20 percent of American ninth-graders go on to earn a college degree.

"Is school a place or a process?" Kelly asked in his challenge of the industrial model.

A couple of the presenters quoted Microsoft founder Bill Gates' comments to the National Education Summit on High Schools, saying, "America's high schools are obsolete. ... I mean that our high schools -- even when they're working exactly as designed -- cannot teach our kids what they need to know today."

Patti Smith, a member of the Education Alliance at Brown University, said the importance of Gates' comments lay in his blame of the system rather than of teachers, parents or students.

Panelists agreed that Gates' comments should inspire audience members to build on the base developed at the conference to work on ways of using smart planning to fix Philadelphia's education system.

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