The evolving Philadelphia high school

September 6, 2017
The Notebook

With the sound of drills and nail guns in the background, two 9th-grade boys tried to solve a math problem.

“How many 2-by-4, 8-foot planks am I going to have to buy?” asked Jared Lauterbach, their  teacher.

This is what studying Shakespeare looks like at the Workshop School, one of seven (soon to be eight) schools in the Philadelphia School District’s Innovation Network. They are part of a growing national movement to reinvent the high school experience by re-aligning what students learn with skills they actually need to lead successful and productive lives.

Two 9th-grade classes at Workshop, which grew out of West Philadelphia High School’s Automotive Academy, had spent several weeks reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Together, they wrote their own version of the play, set in West Philly in 2017. Called The Summer That Changed Everything, it features teenage love triangles, betrayal, misunderstandings, and a psychiatrist who hypnotizes people with classical music. The antidote to the trance is a dose of R&B. Big themes include class and family identity.

To produce the play, the students divided into groups based on areas of interest. One group was in charge of the acting and direction, one handled ticket sales and publicity, and another designed the costumes, lighting, and sound.

The two students considering how much wood to buy were in the group building the set – specifically, at the moment, a bench. Using the instruction manual for the design they chose, they came up with the shopping list for the needed materials.

“How much money do we need to buy all these pieces of lumber? Don’t forget about tax,” said Lauterbach. In a few minutes, the students had a budget.

Nobody took a test on soliloquies.

This is what Workshop and the other innovation schools strive toward: project-based learning with a student-centered and inquiry-driven curriculum. The projects are instructionally rigorous while simultaneously building community identity and teamwork skills.

“We have to continue to think about how do we design models and structures and systems that are more responsive to today’s learner, not a learner from a decade ago,” said School Superintendent William Hite. “My grandson, who is 5, is not learning that way. That type of school is not going to serve him.”

Reimagining school for all

Over the last four years, the District under Hite has opened four new innovative high schools – the U School, Building 21, the LINC (for Learning in New Contexts), and Workshop. Hite also oversaw the creation of two new schools using the model developed by Science Leadership Academy Center City – SLA@Beeber and Science Leadership Academy Middle School (SLAMS).

“What we actually want [is] for children to understand the problem, be consumers of information and research, work as members of a group to actually solve that problem,” Hite said. “They are developing these thinking skills that will then go much farther in preparing them for the future that they will be exposed to than the traditional approach [would].”

Beyond the creation of new schools, the innovation initiative seeks to develop 21st-century best practices that can be incorporated districtwide. The ultimate goal is to reinvigorate the idea of school for students effectively abandoned by the existing system. All the new schools except SLA and SLA@Beeber are meant to be open to everyone, with minimal or no admissions criteria, offering something different to students who would otherwise end up in traditional neighborhood high schools.

The eighth school in the Innovation Network will open in September as a neighborhood high school in the shuttered Roberts Vaux building in the Sharswood community of North Philadelphia. It’s a place that for years has been defined by a drug-ridden, high-rise housing project.

The new school is part of an unprecedented partnership among the District, the teachers’ union, and the Philadelphia Housing Authority – which has invested millions already in a massive neighborhood revitalization. The school will be operated by Big Picture Philadelphia, the local arm of a national organization that specializes in student-centered, project-based school models that use internships to create real-world learning environments.

But as the District tries to cultivate an ecosystem in which innovation can thrive, it is learning that the process is full of obstacles.

One is the question of how to determine success in an accountability environment that prizes test scores more than any other means of evaluation.

Another is the tendency of huge bureaucracies – and the Philadelphia School District is no exception – to resist change. Tied to this is the tendency of huge bureaucracies, including the Philadelphia School District, to resist change. For example, different grading systems have to be developed in schools that have different models of success. In addition, not everyone around Hite is a fan of prioritizing new models when the city’s schools have so many unmet needs.

A third, vexing and rewarding at the same time, is whether this kind of innovation — which represents a new way of learning — can work with the typical student. In Philadelphia, thousands of students reach their high school years short on skills and with no other experience of education except a mandate to absorb information they may or may not be interested in.

SLA Center City has had remarkable success since its founding in 2006, and its model has proven popular and effective. But, as a magnet school, it is able to choose its students. SLA@Beeber is somewhat less selective; SLAMS is a neighborhood middle school. Workshop School  has no official admissions criteria, but it does interview students to make sure they understand the school’s model. The LINC, the U School and Building 21 have been designed specifically to be open to all students citywide and, like Vaux, have no enrollment criteria at all – not even attendance or behavior requirements.

So far, however, the LINC, the U School and Building 21 are under-enrolled. While the incoming 9th- grade classes have grown larger each year, the schools have struggled to market their different approaches to potential students and parents.

Enrollment is something “all of our schools have struggled with,” said Neil Geyette, founder and principal of the U School. “The amount of work we have to invest in enrollment is crazy. We can’t afford boots on the ground.”

Most students have been referred by word of mouth.

“Our school’s most successful enrollment happens because of the kids and parents who say, ‘You’ve got to go to this place. My kid loves this place. I love this place.’” said Geyette.

Shared values, different methods

The Innovation Network was created two years ago to help educators and officials tackle the overriding issues facing these schools together, united in their common purpose.

They all share a set of values, officially articulated as “modern, empowering, authentic and caring.” They all have an inquiry- and project-based component, they all use technology to facilitate learning, and they all have built personalization into their instructional model.

They also join in believing that school must clearly relate to real-world questions and issues that interest students.

“We’re trying to get away from this idea that kids have to buy into this vague promise of what education is for, and instead make it based on what their experience in school on a day-to-day basis actually is,” said Matthew Riggan, a co-founder of the Workshop School. “You can’t say ‘suffer through this boring, pointless, irrelevant, crappy experience for 13 years’ in the hope that ultimately you can trade that experience for some other abstract experience that they have no idea what it’s about and they may not know anybody else who does either.”

The designers and leaders of these schools are equally committed to upending the traditional learning model. All the schools have extensive advisory programs, for instance, designed to nurture relationships and a sense of stability. But the schools all operate very differently. Implementation has been a matter of their founders’ visions, trial and error, adaptation to particular circumstances, and the style of leadership.

The LINC has affiliated with the national organization New Tech, known for its project-based model. Workshop School uses hands-on interdisciplinary projects based on real-world problems and supplements content areas with some subject-specific seminars.

The U School and Building 21 are “competency-based,” meaning that students are evaluated on their ability to master a skill, but there’s flexibility in how they demonstrate mastery. They can work at their own pace and go back and improve various assignments as long as the final product shows that they have achieved mastery.

Most notably, the model bases student achievement and credit accumulation on the demonstration of actual learning, not on the amount of time students spend sitting in a classroom studying a particular subject. For example, students don’t accumulate social studies credits by taking a sequence of courses, but by incorporating social studies into their projects and internships.

‘Inertia of big systems’

But innovation is incredibly challenging, particularly in a district the size of Philadelphia that is often seen as too big and too bureaucratic to be flexible.

“The inertia of big systems actually brings people back to the norm,” said Hite. “There are a lot of things as a system that could choke out innovation from a school or from an approach. We have to get better at, as a system, just in allowing those flexibilities.”

Some of those pressures toward status quo are internal, such as grading practices and roster structures, and others are external, such state testing mandates and accountability metrics.

For the internal structures, Christina Grant sees herself as the bridge between school and network needs and District rules. Grant has spent the last two years as the assistant superintendent for the Opportunity Network, which comprises the accelerated and alternative schools designed to recapture students who have either dropped out or failed to accumulate enough credits after many years in school.

This year, she will also be leading the Innovation Network – with schools meant to invigorate the learning environment so radically that these students never drop out in the first place.

“I see my role as support,” said Grant of her new responsibilities. She said she wants to figure out what needs to happen at the system level to allow each school’s particular innovation to grow.

In pursuit of this goal, there have been significant growing pains. How are the competency-based grades translated to a traditional report card? With state requirements to take math courses, for instance, in a particular order, what does that mean for “working at your own pace?” Can we really abandon the idea that high school should last four years, not three, not five? How exactly do students accumulate the necessary credits to graduate?

Despite the challenges, Hite believes that having different options is crucial to the future of the District.

“The current models were not working,” he said. “Children were telling us that over and over again, and they were not just telling us verbally. We saw it in the attendance numbers, dropout numbers. We saw it in children who were leaving and trying to go to other opportunities.”

But like inventing a new kind of high school with no template to consult, the process of building a District receptive to this type of work involves constant feedback and readjustment. At times, it’s messy. Most of the schools look different now than they did during their opening year. They have fine-tuned their models, let go of ideas that didn’t work, replaced them with ideas that do, and little by little, built something that serves students and challenges the concept of what high school looks like.

“Start-ups are hard,” Hite said. “Start-ups in business are hard. Start-ups in schools are hard. Many people will think that they can happen very quickly … but they require time to evolve.”

This story is part of a project on innovative high schools funded by a fellowship from the national Education Writers Association and reported and written by freelancer Melanie Bavaria. Additional project stories are is coming soon to

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