At Building 21, tech makes learning personal

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

Building 21 is one of three innovative high schools started this year designed to transform the educational experience for students. After a year of planning, it opened in September to its first class of more than 100 9th graders.

Like High School of the Future, it has a one-to-one technology program. Each Building 21 student gets a Chromebook, and work is done digitally. There are no textbooks and little paper is used.

Unlike HSOF, it doesn’t have a state-of-the-art building; it shares the former Ferguson Elementary School in North Philadelphia with the U-School, one of the other startups.

Thomas Gaffey, who spent seven years as a math teacher at School of the Future, is Building 21’s chief instructional technologist.

“The most powerful thing I’ve ever done for kids is authentic project-based learning,” said Gaffey. “Students need to be making meaning of their world, interacting and impacting the world in a meaningful way and not just doing things for the teacher for a grade.”

His mission is to “try to find students’ passion and keep them engaged in school so we can work on the holes in their education.”

He is also using technology to crunch data and create a competency-based student assessment system that tells students exactly where they are on a series of skills.

Traditional letter grades don’t give students much information about what they know and can do, he said. The competency system “makes the learning process transparent,” Gaffey said, and enables students to work at their own pace and understand their strengths and weaknesses.

At Building 21, students do projects primarily through “studio” classes each afternoon. There are three: They can explore culinary careers, look at options in the medical field, or create their own projects and delve into whatever interests them. In the “personalized” studio, for instance, one student is preparing a fashion show, and another is designing a video game class for next year.

English teacher Thomas Emerson, another longtime HSOF teacher who transferred to Building 21, runs the personalized studio.

“Kids are figuring out their own pathways, figuring out the competencies and working at their own pace in solving problems and getting a handle on their lives,” he said. “Building 21 has been intentional from the very beginning in programming that into the day.”

But, he added, “It takes so much manpower to make that happen. One of our founders is working day and night to get partnerships for those kids.”

The effort is generating excitement. What they are learning “matters to their future and their world,” Emerson said.

Building 21, co-founded by former Philadelphia Youth Network CEO Laura Shubilla, is a network – it is also opening a school in Allentown in September. It defines its network, however, as not only including its schools but also its partners, including businesses and community groups and other off-campus learning sites where students go for apprenticeships and internships. If all goes well, students will be able to get industry certifications and participate in dual enrollment with colleges and universities.

The school is also part of networks for sharing online curricula and teacher professional development.

Building 21 will add a grade each year, and the goal is to have a final enrollment of 600. Though the goal was to enroll 150 9th graders, currently the enrollment is about 130, Gaffey said.

It is deliberately non-selective, with students admitted by lottery. So far, it does not have a broad cross-section of students that founders hoped for, one that includes those who qualify for a more traditional special-admission school but who might be attracted to this type of learning.

As a result, Gaffey said that many of the students come with needs related to severe disruption in their lives. So while concentrating on the school’s technology needs, he has also been digging into best practices of trauma-informed care.

“We thought we had a good model, but so far do not have the diversity that all schools deserve and need to have a successful, thriving culture, so the staff doesn’t have to focus on trauma,” he said.

Still, students are benefiting.

“I came here because this school had opportunities other schools didn’t have," said Luis Otano, 14, who attended Potter-Thomas Elementary School in Kensington. “We have the technology. We have laptops. It is way better than regular school.”

In addition, he said, the constant feedback he gets through the competency-based learning matrix “helps me learn more about myself and gives us more chances to improve ourselves.”

Luis Otano stands in the hallway of Building 21, which, along with the U-School, is located in the building of former Ferguson Elementary. (Photo: Allison Welton)

Otano chose to be in the medical studio because he aspires to be a doctor. Eilis Hood, an English and social studies teacher who runs that studio, came to Building 21 from a West Philadelphia middle school.

Hood said that her prior schools did not use technology in this way and that she and students have had to adjust so students can be more in control of their own learning. “I’m used to following the District’s pacing guides. … Lots of times I have a plan, but the class takes me elsewhere. Technology leaves the door open for them to look for information in different areas.”

As a result, she said, “A lot of kids are having a breakthrough. Kids are able to find their niche.”

Though she said that “it’s been hard starting a school,” she describes herself as “happy. I feel supported.”

Science teacher Hillary Van Anda came from one of the District’s accelerated schools, where online learning was mostly for credit recovery, in which over-age students seeking diplomas went through a software program in a subject with teacher supervision. At Building 21, she runs the culinary studio, in which some students actually cook a meal on hotplates, while others do online research on nutrition, the chemistry of food, and other topics.

At Building 21, she said, “I get to teach science the way it needs to be taught.” While she often has to alter her lesson plans based on student needs and skills, “we are building a culture of learning,” she said.