The evolving Philadelphia high school

The District’s innovation schools use a problem-solving approach to learning. Such a significant shift has not been easy.

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

Gay Carducci
Note: This is a longer version of a story that appeared in our Fall Guide to High Schools.

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

“How many 2-by-4, 8-foot planks am I going to have to buy when I go to Home Depot this afternoon?,” asked Jared Lauterbach, the students’ teacher, “and how many 6-foot planks?”

This is what studying Shakespeare looks like at the Workshop School, one of seven (soon to be eight) schools in the District’s Innovation Network. They are part of a growing national movement to reinvent the high school experience by re-aligning learning with skills students 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 the prior 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 featured 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 who were considering how much wood to buy were in the group building the set — specifically, at the moment, a bench. They had to come up with the shopping list for the materials. Using the instruction manual for the design they chose, they came up for 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. “When I was in school, we did X, Y, and Z, but guess what? My grandson, who is five, 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, 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).

Hite made these investments despite unrelenting financial pressure on the District, not to mention criticism that he should instead pour more funds into existing schools and, presumably, their traditional educational model. But the superintendent has reached a different conclusion.

“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,” he said. “And they are doing that, 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 for the 21st century 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.

“I don’t think the folks downtown think that the goal of creating this network is to have seven [new and] different schools,” said Matt Riggan, a co-founder of the Workshop School and head of the Sustainability Workshop, its nonprofit research arm. “I think it’s to say, “How do we create systems that are more supportive and more flexible?”

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 for years 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.

“One of our tenets is always to create a school without walls,” said David Bromley, Executive Director of Big Picture Philadelphia. “We feel really fortunate. We have three partners that are very, very much invested in creating a really high quality Big Picture school.”

Vaux will be the first neighborhood high school in the network in that it doesn’t require an application through the citywide admissions process.

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.

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 traditional 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.

“We have a lot of students for which their school experience up until they get to us has not been about them in control,” said Charlie McGeehan, a teacher at the U School. So putting them in control in 9th grade “is a really big challenge.”

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 has no official admissions criteria, but it does interview students to make sure they understand the school’s model. LINC, U School, 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, LINC, 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 “we have struggled with, and I think 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.”

But before these schools could advertise their model, they had to refine it, which has taken time. Then comes the task of explaining their non-traditional schools to outsiders who don’t even have a familiarity with the basic language needed to explain these out-of-the-box models.

So far, 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.

Same 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 experiences in school on a day-to-day basis actually is,” said Riggan, the Workshop co-founder. “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.

At SLA the advisory model includes having the same advisor and group for all four years of high school, meeting two times per week for 40 minutes. At Workshop, students have a different advisor every year, but spend the first half of every day in their advisory, both for community building and instructional blocks. U School doesn’t call it “advisory” at all, but “possi,” which stands for “possibilities.” A possi group is the maintained through all four years of high school and meets every day for 30-40 minutes.

According to Chris Lehmann, the founder of SLA and for two years the assistant superintendent of the Innovation Network, it is a matter of restructuring schools with a deliberate, intentional focus on student needs.

“It’s not like other schools don’t care about children,” he said. “They absolutely do. Schools have long cared about children. But they don’t create the systems and structures that allow schools to care for children.

“That shift only happens if there’s incredible intentionality,” he explained. “In all of our schools in the network, we are very intentional about what it means to take care of children and what are the systems and structures that the schools need to do so.”

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.

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 students can go back and improve various assignments as long as the final product shows that they have achieved mastery.

Most notably, the competency 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 learning a particular subject. For example, students don’t accumulate social studies credits by taking a sequence of social studies courses, but by incorporating social studies into their projects and internships.

They do not earn the credits until they demonstrate mastery of the skill. For example, they must master an analytical writing assignment before moving on to the next one, say, narrative writing. They do this as quickly or as slowly as fits their learning needs.

Even within the competency-based model, there are still real differences in the ways students are taught. At the U School, because of the school’s focus on producing self-driven learners, students are not organized by grade level. Instead, they are grouped by how independent they are as learners. Students themselves propose which group is the best fit for them, making their case for why they should be taught in a more teacher-directed classroom or an environment that more closely resembles collaborative coworking space with short 15 minute lessons and daily one-on-one check-ins with the teacher.

The 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 bring people back to the norm,” said Dr. 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 and roster structures, while others are external, such as 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 so radically invigorate the learning environment 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.

“You need a system person who is sitting in the central office that is doing that side of the work so that the principals can be running great schools.”

Grant said that, as she sees it, in these “entrepreneurial” schools, standards and the basic content stay the same. But “learning and delivery changes, school schedules change, grading policies change.” The key is to support the entrepreneurial spirit while ensuring that their diploma means something and “sets them up for post-secondary success.”

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?

Lehmann, who is stepping down as the network’s leader to take on a role as CEO of SLA’s own network of three schools, acknowledged this challenge as well. “It’s sort of push and pull. Working with the larger structure to figure out how do we create the conditions for innovation, right? What are the systems that need to adapt and change to allow these schools to have the flexibility they need to do the kinds of models that they are doing? Whether that is rostering, professional development, curricular design, credit accumulation, you name it,” said Lehmann.

Grant’s experience in the charter sector in New York as well as the leader of the Opportunity Network gives her a unique background for this work. By their very nature and the kind of the students they work with, the alternative and accelerated schools have been forced to navigate outside the systems that were made for the traditional schools. For example, the very point of an accelerated school is to get overage and under credited students enough credits to graduate in an accelerated timeline. Figuring out how to balance a school’s unique needs with the District’s desire for a clear and system-pleasing answer will certainly be beneficial for Grant and the schools she manages.

Everyone, from Hite to individual teachers, acknowledges that there is a long way to go, and many of the principals in the network have been frustrated by the feeling that they have needed to alter or abandon key parts of their instructional models in order to accommodate bureaucratic logistics. However, at the same time, they realize a change in mindset, from the top down, has made it possible for their existence.

“There are still things that need to be figured out,” said Simon Hauger, co-founder and principal of the Workshop School. “I think it’s important to acknowledge that we probably wouldn’t be doing this work under a different superintendent.”

In 2013, as the District planned to shutter two dozen schools due to declining enrollment — caused largely by a migration to charter schools — Hite decided to invest in the creation of innovative schools.

“We started these schools in a time when we were fiscally challenged and looking for unique and different models of success,” he said. “The current models were not working. Children were telling us that over and over again, and they were not just telling us verbally. We saw it in the attendance numbers, drop out 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 both serves kids and challenges our 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