A second chance at reinventing the high school experience

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

When students showed up in school Monday, Saliyah Cruz and Neil Geyette embarked on the most important phase of an ambitious effort to reinvent the high school experience for many students in Philadelphia.

The two educators have designed and are running two brand new, non-selective high schools in North Philadelphia. Geyette is principal of the U School and Cruz is leading the LINC, which stands for Learning in New Contexts.

As the School District continues to struggle with severe underfunding, the project has been scorned in some quarters as boutique and accused of taking valuable resources away from starved neighborhood schools.

But for Cruz and Geyette, former colleagues at West Philadelphia High School until four years ago, it is about developing ways to make education more meaningful for students who have been failed by the existing system.

“The idea is connecting kids with their lives and using their lives to help them learn,” Geyette said. “It’s about changing kids’ view of themselves and getting adults to see kids differently.”

Monday, when the doors open to students, Mayor Nutter and Superintendent William Hite will visit the LINC to signal their commitment to the effort. The design of the two schools was subsidized by a $3 million grant from the Carnegie Corp.

Geyette and Cruz spent the better part of the spring and summer recruiting the first class of 9th graders for their two schools. A third new high school, called Building 21 and spearheaded by former Philadelphia Youth Network president Laura Shubilla, will share the old Ferguson Elementary School with the U School. The LINC is housed in the building of Roberto Clemente Middle School in Hunting Park.

The U School and Building 21 will share space at former Ferguson Elementary, which was closed in 2013. (Photo: Harvey Finkle.)

The target group is students who attend neighborhood high schools – where, in most cases, barely half graduate, and many that do are unprepared for college or career.

The three schools held information sessions around the city and visited every 8th grade in the target North Philadelphia area — 46 schools in 10 zip codes. Half the seats are reserved for those students, although the schools are open to all citywide.

A big part of the recruiting, said Geyette, was “talking to families and asking them what their aspirations are, what they want to see in a school.” There are no admissions requirements; students with special needs, even those who have been kicked out of other schools, are welcome.

Demand exceeded their expectations – 1,800 students applied for just under 300 spots in the three schools. Although the goal wasn’t specifically to capture more students who attend charters and non-public schools, about 20 percent of applicants came from outside the District.

At one of the early recruiting sessions, held at School District headquarters, Geyette faced a room of about 30 parents and their 8th-grade students. He exuded an urgent energy, aware that he had just a few minutes to alter their view of what education could look like.

“Think about it as kindergarten on steroids,” he said, hands waving for emphasis as the group listened, rapt. “You never see a kindergarten teacher standing in the front of the room for an hour talking about colors. The teacher will say, ‘Play with these, explore. …’”

At the U School – centered on “you,” and “user,” or “U” – students will be valued for what they bring to the table, he said. They will learn while doing real work and solving real problems. The students’ education will not be a daylong march from one separate, disconnected subject to another.

Instead of classes, there will be workshops. The education will be a process of discovery, tailored to the learner. It will be organized around themes and big questions. Students move on when they have mastered the material and the tasks – so-called “competency learning.”

Geyette described something that most of the students in the room had likely never experienced before. Regardless of the skills and troubles they bring, they would be expected to take responsibility. They would spend their days doing interesting projects and be given the time they need to learn what they need to know.

There won’t be textbooks, but all students will have a Chromebook computer for use in school.

And each student will have one adult, an adviser called a "posse" leader, for their entire high school career. They would not be stigmatized if they took five years instead of four to graduate, or held back if they could finish in three.

In a nearby room that day, Saliyah Cruz was making a similar pitch for the LINC.

She told the parents and students arranged around a horseshoe of tables that, at the LINC, there will be no group lectures like the one she was giving at that moment. “If you’re teaching one lesson to a group of kids, you’re not reaching them all,” she said.

Geyette said the recruiting experience validated what they are trying to accomplish.

“We’ve been talking to kids around the city,” Geyette said. “Kids are disillusioned. But their demeanor changes when they talk about schools that value who they are and use their interests to drive their learning.”

Getting students to adapt to their new environment will be a long process. Cruz is calling it “detox,” while Geyette calls it “Unschooling,” with a capital U for U School.

Why detox?

“We’re trying to get young people to see themselves as creators – that school is not done to you or for you, but is a process,” said Cruz. “We want to get them to think of themselves as a partner in the experience.”

Recruiting teachers was also a painstaking but rewarding process, they said.

The principals screened hundreds of applications and carefully chose their faculty members – just six each – who spent an entire summer month planning. The aim was to focus on promoting youth development and on “scaffolding rigor,” to make sure the work is demanding for the students.

The “detox” experience was for teachers, too, for them to see their role differently – as an instructional designer, school designer, and data miner, as well as a coach for students and a manager in helping them produce their work.

“We found that teachers were excited to be valued as professionals,” Cruz said, “that they were doing curriculum development as opposed to being handed a ‘scope and sequence’ [manual]. One teacher was surprised that he was actually being listened to, that we were willing to change things based on content experts telling us what is needed.”

Maria Pandolfi and Justin Deutsch, two teachers at the LINC, said that they found the model attractive because traditional school didn’t work for them, either as students or teachers.

“I’m adamant about teaching in a way where students get a humane education,”said Pandolfi, an art teacher and 20-year veteran who is active in human rights causes.

Deutsch liked the neighborhood school where he taught for five years, “but it was very much a teach-to-the-test atmosphere, and that’s not what I got into teaching for,” he said. “I wanted to do something more creative.” A special education and English teacher, he will coordinate technology at the LINC.

It started at West

Neil Geyette, in 2011, when he was a teacher at Franklin Learning Center. (Photo: Benjamin Herold) That Geyette and Cruz hold such key roles in this District venture to remake high schools is tinged with irony.

It wasn’t so long ago that the two of them were, in essence, banished from their jobs at West Philadelphia High School for similar efforts to transform the educational experience for their students – mostly young people who lacked the background, the skills, the knowledge, or the will to make it into one of the city’s selective admission schools, or even apply to a charter.

Between 2007 and 2010, when Cruz was principal, West had a dramatic turnaround in climate and Cruz won the support of teachers and students, as well as many in the community.

Geyette, a young social studies teacher, started the Urban Academy, using many of the principles that now animate the U School.

When Cruz and Geyette were at West, they had some preliminary conversations about starting a school together, but it never went anywhere.

The Urban Academy was also designed to build student leadership. It got funding from the William Penn Foundation and had a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania. The organizing group Philadelphia Student Union was part of the planning and development.

Students did projects and demonstrations, with the neighborhood as their classroom. Their work grew out of their own interests.

“It was great to see how quickly kids responded to a different adult paradigm,” Geyette said. Despite the “chaos” at West, both in terms of its day-to-day functioning and contentiousness around determining the school’s future, he said, “great things were happening.”

“There was the opportunity to scale up ideas and build partnerships and relationships with not only institutions, but families.”

But former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman was unhappy that test scores remained very low. After a tortuous debate over different turnaround options, Ackerman designated West as a Promise Academy to be directed by the central office, a direction that Cruz resisted. So she was transferred out.

Cruz was sent to Communications Tech High School, which had shown a dramatic test score rise over the prior several years. Cruz thought she was entering a high-performing school, but soon concluded that those scores were the result of cheating; after an investigation, her predecessor as principal lost her credentials.

After a short stint at Comm Tech, Cruz left the District, she said, in “heartbreak.” She had decided that the District wasn’t serious about improving education for students who were not candidates for a selective school.

In the wake of the Promise Academy designation, Geyette also left West to teach at Franklin Learning Center – one of the first schools in the city founded on the idea of competency-based learning. He also got his principal certification.

They thought they were on different paths – until last year, when each received a call from Grace Cannon, who had been brought in to head the Office of New Schools Development. She began the process of finding people to design the new schools.

First she found Geyette, then Cruz, who by then had taken a job as a middle school principal in Delaware.

Geyette jumped at the chance and left FLC last November to start on the design process. At first, Cruz gave Cannon the names of others who might be interested – then called back and said, “Don’t call them.” The conversation had convinced her that she wanted to apply for the position herself.

“I am excited at the idea that the District is back at a place where it is looking at … creating good opportunities for kids not able to access magnets or citywide admission schools,” Cruz said in an interview, choking up a little. “It’s exciting that the city hasn’t given up on that population or turned its back on those families.”

The two were so focused on the work over the past few months that they were largely unaware – and a bit befuddled – that there has been opposition in some quarters to what they are doing.

The schools shared the $3 million grant for advance planning, which helped pay for the lengthy incubation and extensive professional development. But for this school year, apart from $15,000 each for startup costs, the schools don’t get more resources than others.

The District, though, has not responded to questions about their ultimate cost – as measured in keeping open another building, for instance.

“We’re trying to improve the system of schools that already exists,” said Cannon.

Added Cruz: “This is an option for all families looking for an option. We meet with kids, talk to families about what their aspirations are and what they want to see in a school, and try to figure out the right way to do it.”

Pandolfi, the art teacher, is excited and optimistic. She has grand plans for her students to use art as a vehicle for “looking at yourself and looking at the world around you,” what she thinks education should be all about.

“Once the kids get there and grab onto this,” she said, “I really hope that other schools become what we’re going to be.”