Making a Comeback

December 12, 2017
The Notebook

In the corner of Bridget Bujak’s office is a clothes rack decked with shoe pockets, each labeled with the name of a student. Instead of shoes, each holds a cellphone.

Throughout the day, Bujak, the principal of the LINC high school, holds meetings, works on reports, and makes phone calls through bursts of ringing and beeping. She barely notices.

“I keep asking [students] to make sure they are on silent, but you know, they forget. That’s what I get for having a cellphone policy, I guess.”

Bujak laughs cheerfully.

Each morning, the students at LINC walk into school expecting order and a nurturing environment. They go through a metal detector — as they would at most Philadelphia high schools — but the security guard greets them by name. Their principal is both no-nonsense and generous with hugs. And they take typical high school courses, but their method of learning is not quite so typical — working on projects with other students, but also progressing through units at their own pace, with frequent one-on-one support from their teacher.

Students describe the academics as more rigorous than in their old schools. Occasionally they grumble that the teachers can be too hard on them. But they also say that the school is like a family, where one teacher or another is always willing to help with their work, or just with life.

“The metaphor I like to use in my meetings is: Who is going to be that ‘school mom or dad’ for that struggling student who might be under the radar?” Bujak said.

It has been a fraught journey to this place, both for the LINC and for Bujak.

LINC stands for Learning in New Contexts. Along with the U School, it opened its doors in September 2014 to great fanfare. The two schools were developed to be part of the Innovation Network in the Philadelphia School District, designed to provide project-based, student-centered, relevant education to young people in one of Philadelphia’s most-stressed neighborhoods.

The Carnegie Foundation offered support for the planning year and two years after opening.

Then-Mayor Michael Nutter visited on the LINC’s opening day to tout its promise. Teachers had been carefully chosen for a willingness to embrace something new, and students were hopeful that the environment would be different from what they’d find in their neighborhood school.

Saliyah Cruz, the former principal at West Philadelphia High School and the founding principal at LINC, was the architect behind the model.

But nine days after the school opened, Cruz announced that she was leaving for a job in Baltimore. She assured the District and the public that the structures and the staff were in place to launch the school according to its vision.

Not so.  Absent its guiding leader, who had designed and planned the school as a bulwark of innovation, the LINC devolved into chaos. It stayed that way for a year, going through three more principals in rapid succession, until Bujak took over in 2015.

But now, LINC has made a comeback. Thrown into the experiment of fundamentally redesigning high school without any relevant experience, Bujak boned up on the model, studied the founding principles, stayed true to her brand of leadership, and honed her own vision of how to invigorate education and care for students in a tattered urban neighborhood.

LINC’s story illustrates the importance of leadership in promoting and sustaining innovation — and how dependent the whole enterprise can be on an original visionary. It is also a lesson in how education deemed “innovative” can take many forms. It is not always about competency-based learning, project-based learning, personalized learning, or any other models that often become buzzwords. It can be about giving a community a different option and simply finding the best fit.

For Bujak, the key to reinventing high school at the LINC started with stability. She turned to bedrock values: structure and consistency balanced with care and creativity, while always keeping the students at the center.

When she arrived at the LINC, Bujak, a veteran of Edison and Olney High Schools, knew she had a rescue mission on her hands. Many of the original students and teachers had left. The staff was in upheaval, with tension between the remaining original teachers, who were frantic that what they signed up for was in jeopardy, and new teachers, who were less tuned in to the original innovation mandate.

For guidance, Bujak turned to the students themselves.

“I would do mini-focus groups, do mini-interviews, or just talk to the kids in the hallway, like, ‘What do you think about uniforms?’” she said. “‘What do you think about cellphones?’

“It’s important to have student voice. They really were the prominent source of information.”

Every few weeks, Bujak conducted all-student town halls to air issues.

“Like the cellphones. We complained about that,” recalled Juan Marreri, now a senior and one of the original freshmen who gutted it out. “She does this thing in the auditorium, and she puts all the stuff up on the board that we complained about, and she asks us how to fix this.”

That first year, Bujak abandoned most of what had been devised during the school’s planning — personalized instruction, new types of assessments, interdisciplinary learning, restorative behavior supports — in favor of traditional classes and grading and a behavior-tracking system based on incentives and sanctions.

But she never lost sight of the original mission or of students’ constant need for careful tending.

“We’re like a big family; she’s like our school mom,” said junior Maionne Tyler. “She’ll see us in the hallway. She’ll pull us aside to have a one-on-one conversation. If you need feedback, she’ll give you feedback. If you don’t need her feedback, she just listens.”

One morning, Bujak dealt firmly with a student for being out in the hallway when he should have been in class.

Later, she went looking for him. “Do you need a hug now?” she asked the young man, named Anthony.

“Yes,” he said, reaching out his arms.

The students like both her bubbly personality and her consistent commitment to rules.

“Everybody is a lot more straight. Ms. Bujak got control,” said Angel Pineiro, an 11th grader.

Before Bujak took the helm at the school, students said, it was close to anarchy.

“Think of it as a wild zoo. We got away with a lot a lot of things,” said Helen Grant, who was a freshman during that school year. “There used to be a dress code, but that just went out the door. Principals coming in and out. … We left whenever we wanted. It was just ridiculous.”

Justin Deutsch, who teaches media, was a founding faculty member, one of the few who are still there.

“We didn’t have any kind of basic procedures, like, OK, it’s lunchtime and how are we going to get these kids to lunch? What do we have to do with students before the teachers get here in the morning? How are we going to switch classes?” he said.  Additionally, the combination of a block schedule and teachers jumping ship left 85-minute chunks of time when students had nothing to do and no supervision.

“To be honest, I did whatever I wanted to do,” Grant said.

“We all did!” chimed in Marreri, her classmate. “It was not school. It was like normal life, like if you were on the street on your own.”

Although the chaos was disastrous for the students’ education, it created an unexpected camaraderie among the remaining students and teachers.

“Because that first year was so messed up, we have pretty good relationships with most of the kids because it was like a ‘let’s get through this together’ type of thing. So, as unstructured as it was, there weren’t a whole lot of serious incidents,” Deutsch said.

At that point, Bujak was a vice principal at Olney Charter High School. She had 12 years of experience in North Philadelphia, mostly in Edison High School as a math teacher, department chair and dean of students. The LINC’s model interested her, so she jumped when Cheryl Logan, the District’s chief of academic support, asked her whether she would be interested applying for the school’s top job.

But with no personal experience in project-based or competency-based learning, she needed to educate herself while working to restore stability.

Ultimately, Bujak scrapped the competency system and put project-based learning on the back burner for a year. She let the advisory model, which is an intense homeroom allowing students and their teacher to bond, fall by the wayside. The staff that had originally come on board for those very reasons started to clash with their new principal.

The pivot toward policies that are more emblematic of a “traditional” Philadelphia neighborhood high school — like the cellphone ban, uniform policy, and use of metal detectors — made Bujak an outlier in a network of schools known for their progressive education models, where freedom of movement and student ownership of curriculum and community policies are the norm.

“I am in the minority, clearly,” said Bujak. “I think I am in a different position than the other principals [in the Innovation Network] by all means. … I think I’m the odd man out.”

All of the other schools in the network still have their founding visionaries. And although these schools have tweaked things along the way, the core tenets that led the design process are still there. For the LINC, a school that lost its founder within two weeks, those core values, at least temporarily, were lost.

“She came in to stabilize things, but [the teachers] felt like she was taking the innovation away,” said Deutsch. “They felt like it was turning into a traditional school.”

Although some teachers lost sight of Bujak’s endgame — order first, innovation later — Bujak focused on the students. And though she had quite deliberately decided to do this, the students were understandably skeptical of their fifth principal and her new rules. She had to work hard to build trust with kids and families.

When Bujak arrived, “I was like, let’s see how long she’ll be here, to be honest,” said Grant, one of the initial skeptics. “Because a lot of principals left.”

Added her classmate, Marreri: “She actually tried to work with all of us. She actually took her time and got to know us, and she got teachers that actually wanted to do this job.”

Bujak got to know every student by name, greeted them at the door, and required that her staff, including the school police officer, be engaged with students.

This approach is in line with the philosophy of the other schools in the Innovation Network.

“I imagine every principal [in the network] knows every one of their students by name, right? And you know something about them and we have some sort of relationship with them, which is pretty amazing. We are just super-connected to our kids. In a comprehensive school, you just don’t have that opportunity. …It’s just so big,” said Bujak.

And the kids feel this difference.

“With Ms. Bujak, you can feel it when you walk in. Last year, that was my first year here, and I felt welcomed by all the teachers,” said Tyler, the 11th grader.

Her classmate, Rosbiris Gomez, added, “ I was living in the Dominican Republic, so I came in the middle of the school year. … I went to her office and we started chatting up, and she memorized my name, which is a hard name to memorize. The first day I came to school to study, she was like, ‘Hi, Rosbiris.’ I was like ‘oh my God.’ A principal rarely knows 500 or 400 kids’ names. And she knows all of them, knows what’s happening with them, or if they’re up to something.”

From survival to learning

Bujak describes her first year at the LINC as a “survival year,” and she describes her second as a “learning year.” By the fall of 2016, the school was stable enough to move forward with instructional innovation.

The school partnered with New Tech Network, a nationally recognized organization that promotes new ways of learning through professional development, technology tools, and curriculum design. It integrates an online system called Echo that is used for grading and assessment. A dashboard organizes students’ work and assignments so it is easy to follow both for teachers and students.

Pineiro, an 11th grader, said it has made a big difference.

“[My first year] it was harder to check and keep your work together because it was all around. But last year, since we used Echo, it’s kind of easier to track our grades and our work and all that,” he said.

One of the benefits of the New Tech system was straightforward feedback from teachers on projects and grades, which made it easier to pinpoint problem areas.

For most of the faculty who came on board after Bujak took over, the idea of becoming project-based was overwhelming.

Josh Marony, a veteran math teacher recruited by Bujak from Olney, found it “nerve-wracking” until New Tech showed him how he could execute projects while retaining some traditional teaching methods.

“Project-based is a lot more student-centered than teacher-centered,” he said, acknowledging the value of such a method. “You always want to push those students so much harder. Let’s be honest, does [traditional] high school really prepare you for the real world or college? Not really. It doesn’t give them critical thinking skills.”

Marony quickly saw the impact of the new approach, but putting it into practice effectively after a career spent teaching a completely different way required support and attention.

“It’s just really hard to learn and be expected to do it at the same time,” Bujak said. “My [initial] theory on bringing in New Tech and project-based learning was that as long as my teachers were willing to engage with this process … and build and care about an instruction model, that was a win for me.”

Students have embraced the New Tech model.  They say they feel more engaged by projects and can build better relationships with their teachers than they could in more traditional schools.

“The teachers, they’re different here,” said Grant. “When they’re done teaching, they’ll ask you questions and they’ll be like, ‘Do you understand, what do y’all understand, what don’t y’all understand?’ so we can go over it again or have a one-on-one conversation about it.”

Eleventh grader Carlos Santiago said he’d rather have projects than what he called “normal learning.”

“The projects do help a lot because eventually, I’m going to need it in a job or something,” he said. The projects make it more clear to him why the skills being taught might be useful in the world beyond high school.

Students and teachers are tackling this new way of learning together.

“We take risks together, and, if it doesn’t work, it’s a learning experience and you have support [of colleagues]. We are very honest with each other, and I think that spills over into our relationships with the kids,” said English teacher Theresa Murphy.

As the school works to further implement project-based learning, cultivate a stronger community climate, and build a more robust advisory system, the LINC has started to become increasingly similar to the original intention, which is to provide students in eastern North Philadelphia an option that is different from traditional school.

This year, with the system and culture in place, the focus is on curriculum development and expanding the New Tech model.

It is not the school, however, that it was advertised to be on Sept. 8, 2014.

But that is not necessarily a bad thing. Things have settled down; the school has evolved and grown.

The students didn’t win the argument (at least not yet), and the cellphones are still jangling in their little shoe pockets. But there was a discussion, and the students had a voice. Over the last two and half years, the staff and students created something together and they are proud of the school they have built.

“I don’t think the Innovation Network is saying that there is only one way we should do school,” Bujak said. “This is what works for the LINC.”

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. 

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