‘Crazy. And that’s the excitement of it.’

The U School principal and teachers found that it's not easy to create a school that depends on breaking all the rules.

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

By his own description, Neil Geyette was raised around badass educators, led by his mother.

A public school teacher, Rhonda Geyette raised her son by herself. She had started her career in what were then called “open” schools, places where the world, so to speak, was the classroom.

His mom thrived in this system. But when Geyette was growing up just outside Newark, N.J., where his mother worked, tradition ruled. During his education, he sat at his desk, one of a neat row, and listened to the teacher give a lesson. “I had no agency or choice,” he remembered.

In 1991, when Geyette was 9, the family decamped for Minnesota, and there, everything changed.

For 4th grade, he was enrolled in Marcy Open School, which was closer to his mother’s educating roots. For the first time, he found himself really engaged.

At Marcy, there were no rows of desks and no sitting quietly while the teacher talked. Instead, there were “interest centers,” hives of activity, where students helped each other build and create and solve problems. The teacher was always present, but her role was to structure lessons around the students’ passions. And, by meeting students individually and in small groups, she made sure they were all building their skills in reading, math, science, and art.

He remembers the first time he realized there was something different going on here. He told his teacher that he was fascinated by a particular bear in the zoo. The teacher, Kathy Scoggin, told him to do research, go there with a camera and microphone, interview the director of the exhibit, and prepare a “news report” on the bear for the class.

“I was blown away by the amount of agency I was given,” he said. The school changed his life because it “valued and empowered kids.”

When he moved to a similarly “open” program at South High School in Minneapolis, he chose what to focus on and created his own projects. During senior year, he attended classes at the University of Minnesota.

“I was raised by educators and was around educators who really cared about kids and teaching and learning and not wasting kids’ time,” he said. Like his mother and Kathy Scoggin.

Knowing these people “ is the most impactful thing that happened probably in my whole life.”

It’s the lesson that Geyette, 35, has brought to Philadelphia, where he is the designer and founder of the U School, which opened in 2014 and is now one of eight high schools in the Philadelphia School District founded on the idea of “innovation.”

The mission for these schools’ designers, including Geyette, was to create a school that would prepare the typical Philadelphia student — not just the superstars — to graduate with a truly meaningful diploma so they could succeed in college or a career.

It is a daunting task. When the innovative schools project started, just 24 percent of the District’s students enrolled in college after high school. And only 10 percent actually earned a four-year degree.

Potential was being wasted — potential in such students as Anthony Rivera, who almost gave up on school while growing up. And Argelis Minaya-Bravo, who found it hard to get past her anger. And Ameon Wright, who always felt “dumb” and overwhelmed in the schools he attended.

Something wasn’t working, and it started well before graduation.

A school for its users

The U in U School stands for “users,” based on the premise that school should be designed around the needs of its users — the students — not around adult preferences or the practices of 19th-century factories that used bells to move their workers from one task to another.

There are a few bedrock principles of the “innovative schools” model. They have to be built on students’ interests and involve real-world problem-solving and hands-on activities. They should aim to measure student learning and readiness by evaluating their competency in solving problems and completing tasks, rather than through traditional tests, and students should be supported to learn at their own pace. Ideally, for Geyette, they would not be locked into a four-year regimen of classes where they accumulate credits based on “seat time” instead of on what they actually know and can do.

The U School is built on this foundation, but as Geyette and the rest of the staff were presented with actual students, it has evolved and adapted. Like Philadelphia’s other innovative schools, it aims to teach such skills as time management, organization, collaboration, and engagement along with academic subjects like algebra, history, and chemistry.

It fully integrates technology into the classroom, but doesn’t rely on computer programs for instruction. U School teachers create their own material and content, deployed through Google Classroom. Students demonstrate mastery of specific skills through portfolios of work.

But as the U School gets ready to graduate its first cohort of students, it has developed as the most out-of-the-box of the schools in the Innovation Network. Its instructional program is certainly the most difficult to describe, and its radically different approach is both exciting and full of pitfalls.

In building the school, Geyette found through trial and error that expecting these students from some of the most challenged neighborhoods in Philadelphia to immediately take full control of their education was a stretch. So they are divided into groups based on how much guidance they need, not by their age and class level.

Some students spend their days in a more traditional-looking classroom with a teacher leading the class. Students more often work on learning the same skill or concept at the same time.

Others are in semi-autonomous classes with a short, 10- to 15-minute lesson followed by longer periods in which students work on their own or in small groups. These students check in with their teachers daily and have one-on-one conferences with their teachers every few weeks.

Among this group, by far the biggest in the school, different students are generally working on different things, depending on what they’ve already accomplished, how far along they are in a unit, and what particular “competency” they are working on. There are likely to be sophomores and seniors in the same classroom.

If the class is on immigration, for instance, and the end goal is an analytical presentation, one student might be doing exploratory reading about immigrants while another is honing a thesis — or, perhaps, making a stop-motion video on the topic.

This setup is markedly different from a traditional classroom because students often interact and help each other. In fact, that’s the idea. Seeing how far ahead other kids are can often provide motivation to those having more difficulty or taking longer to complete the work.

The highest level of autonomy is open only to juniors and seniors who earn the privilege, of which there are only a handful. These students can attend classes if they want, but they are completely in charge of managing their own time, meeting their deadlines, and completing a project, much like in college.

Minaya-Bravo described it as a flexible study hall. These students find that they seek guidance from teachers as often as other students, but make more of these interactions.

Determining the classroom model where each student is placed is, like most things at the U School, directed by the student, in consultation with the student’s adviser and Geyette. If students are not prepared for the amount of freedom they are given, they may fall behind and have to reassess their placement with their teacher. If students choose a more-structured class, but may be ready for more autonomy, their adviser may push them to consider more independence. By graduation, the goal is to have each student able to function productively in semi-autonomous classes with limited direct oversight.

Flirting with failure — falling behind, realizing it, and reflecting on why — is a part of the process. Every student interviewed could tell a personal story of panic when they realized how much work they needed to make up and the dwindling amount of time to get it done.

“In a traditional classroom, kids never experience that, because they never own their time,” explained Geyette. So they fail, or do poorly, but don’t learn from it.

In the U School model, ideally, with each setback, students become increasingly aware of their personal shortcomings and their power to overcome them.

The result of these consultations and adjustments is a student population that is remarkably aware of how they learn and open about their academic strengths and weaknesses. Students frequently talk in detail about what skills they need to work on and how those skills are relevant to their life goals.

Although not all of the students are as far along in their ability to self-reflect, most are, particularly by the time they reach 10th or 11th grade.

Geyette, and the team he has put together, is responsible for engineering this environment that encourages kids to explore, assess, fail, and try again. In the process, the students engage in valuable exercises in self-evaluation that their teachers hope will help them wherever they go next, whether it is college or not.

“I don’t think it’s exclusively college,” said Charlie McGeehan, a humanities teacher. “I think that type of thinking … is important in the workplace, too. … That’s how most jobs work. There’s not a whole lot of jobs today where it’s like, ‘I come in on Monday and you tell me what I do, and I do it.’ I think that model is an industrial model, ‘here’s the assembly line.’ … We’re trying to prepare kids for modern-economy jobs.”

Forging innovation out of chaos

After high school, Geyette went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Even though he already knew he wanted to be a teacher, he majored in history and political science. For a year after graduation, he taught world history in Mongolia.

Then he joined the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows, a since-discontinued “alternative certification” program that trains college graduates without education degrees to become teachers.

“I’d never in all my life when I lived in Newark been to Philadelphia,” he said. “I came here and I thought, ‘I’m not leaving.’ If Newark and Minneapolis had a baby, it would be Philadelphia. There’s a spirit here; there’s something here that connects with me.”

But for all his enthusiasm for the city and his zest for teaching, Philadelphia immediately thrust Geyette into the crucible of urban education. West Philadelphia High in 2006 was a maelstrom of tumult — a neighborhood high school lacking leadership and out of control, with a few hundred students rattling around in an ancient structure built for thousands. Fires broke out daily, teachers were beaten up, student suspensions soared. Learning was hit or miss at best.

“It was a disaster. It was the most dangerous school in the state,” Geyette recalled. “It was a highly dysfunctional place.”

The principal was dismissed and a new one, Saliyah Cruz, was put in charge. To calm the chaos, Cruz started putting emphasis on restorative practices instead of harsh discipline and encouraging stronger relationships between students and staff. She also expanded the smaller “academies” within the school, trying to create more intimate environments for students to learn and choose a general direction that interested them.

Cruz worked with teachers like Simon Hauger, who was running West’s highly successful Automotive Academy, and Geyette, who joined the Urban Academy, focused on community organizing and social justice, and after two years became its director.

But then a new superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, arrived with her own ideas for school reform, and a power struggle ensued over West. The administration’s idea of innovation was adding Saturday school and doubling down on classroom techniques that clearly had not worked for these students, instituting lengthy blocs of remedial reading and math.

Cruz was replaced. Geyette transferred to Franklin Learning Center.

But the innovative ideas forged in the chaos at West took root elsewhere. West’s Automotive Academy under Hauger became the Workshop School, also in the Innovation Network. Through the District, Cruz and Geyette received a $3 million grant from the Carnegie Foundation in 2013 to fund the design and start-up years of two new innovative schools.

There were a few requirements: They had to evaluate students on their mastery of grade-level specific skills — called competencies — as demonstrated through projects and could not have any admissions criteria, not even regarding behavior or attendance. And the learning environment had to be “asynchronous,” where students are not being fed the same information and learning the same skills at the same time and in the same place.

Those two schools became the U School and the LiNC.

A school he would have thrived in

To make such schools succeed requires a staff that is willing to go all-in and break out of the mold of traditional teaching.

They also need to trust their leader and yearn to be part of creating something new.

Melanie Bavaria
“This is the kind of school I probably would have thrived in” as a student, said Samuel Reed, a humanities teacher who was among the first hired by Geyette. “The personalization, the design ethos, the restorative practices for discipline … it was clear that Neil Geyette was the guy I would want to live or die with on this new school model.”

But it is hard work. First, the teachers had to figure out how to design units that would allow students of different grade levels to proceed at their own pace.

“You can’t just say ‘learn at your own pace’ and ‘here’s where to go.’ The work has to be concrete and it has to have a path that students can follow,” said McGeehan. “And designing a theoretical education model is much different than implementing it with actual students.”

As pioneers, “there’s a lot of hiccups and a lot of figuring things out,” said Reed.

For example, in the first year, the whole 9th-grade class was initially taught in a classroom structure most resembling the semi-autonomous classes. The staff quickly realized that students — coming in with widely varying skills, many of them used to outdated textbooks and monotonous worksheets — were not ready to be independent, self-motivated learners. After a few iterations, they eventually settled on the three groups that exist today.

Then they realized there needed to be a better way of efficiently tracking student progress and making that progress clear to the student. First they had to figure out a system that tracks student work and progress so teachers and the students can spot productivity and flag its opposite. Geyette worked with a team of pro-bono coders to design a visual tracking system based in Google Docs that integrated with Google Classroom, could be easily updated by teachers, and would be instantly accessible to any student.

These are only a couple of the many kinks that had to be worked out in the school’s first few years.

“You have to constantly be thinking outside the box and creating,” said Reed. “… The leader sets the tone … and Neil is a problem-solver. He is about human capital, and he’s really deeply about kids.”

The set of issues is “humongous” and the model is under-resourced, said Reed.

In some ways, he said, it’s “crazy. And that’s the excitement of it.”

But for students, it was initially confusing and unpredictable. Argelis Minaya-Bravo, a senior and a member of the school’s inaugural class, said her principal and her teachers were the reason she stuck with the school, even though the first year felt like a roller coaster.

“It was a constantly changing model as they tried to figure it out, and at some point it was just like ‘I can’t function here,’” she said, “but from the beginning I believed in his model and I know a lot of other kids did … so I was like ‘I think I can make this work, hopefully, mainly for Geyette.’ I did it for my school and more than myself, just trying to make it work.”

Trying to make it work has been monumentally hard for everyone, including the District bureaucracy that spawned the school to begin with. One lesson of the U School for the District leadership could be, “Be careful what you wish for.”

So far, the District has had a hard time striking a balance between giving the schools autonomy to fulfill their goals and keeping them in line for the purposes of measuring their progress and success. Some of what Geyette and his team want to do at the U School calls into question educational practices and assumptions that some in the District and state leadership are not prepared to let go.

A good example is the four-year graduation expectation. Underpinning the notion that kids can work at their own pace to demonstrate mastery of concepts and skills in all the major subjects is the reality that some may graduate in three years, others in six. Credits are no longer automatic just for completing a class, but require clear evidence, through portfolios, of preparation for the workforce or college. This was the charge of the Carnegie grant — a component that the District was aware of when it accepted the challenge — and was key to Geyette’s model.

But the District is still wedded to the four-year graduation rate.

“Some kids need a longer time in high school to really be prepared for what’s next, but unfortunately I don’t know if the system is willing to let that happen,” said McGeehan.

Both the state and District are also wedded to standardized testing as the chief measure of school and student success. But for the U School, as well as at others in the Innovation Network, standardized testing is a particularly inaccurate representation of the kind of learning that is happening.

This is something the students themselves recognized, with several leading an opt-out-of-testing movement that left Geyette in a quandary — his students were definitely learning to think for themselves and take control of their education, but their activism surrounding this particular issue further ruffled feathers at the top.

Although Geyette was proud of his students’ independence, he was certainly concerned about the potential repercussions — including the continued existence of the school that they had worked so hard to create.

For better or worse, he cares little for the metrics so prized by the educational establishment at the state and federal levels and would rather that his school be judged through other means, including college persistence rates and the quality of life and career paths of his students five years after graduation. Although his commitment to “meaningful work” rather than other more universally accepted metrics may be honorable, it could also hurt his cause.

Melanie Bavaria
Whether it is practical for District leadership to wait for such long-term metrics in deciding the fate of the schools in the Innovation Network is still up in the air.

“There’s a certain degree in this District of high-pressure environments. You’ve got to produce results, and we need to see results now,” said McGeehan.

Yet, innovation is all about rule-breaking.

“Neil is the kind of person that, he doesn’t really care about rules too much. Because if you care about rules, it just highlights that the rules suck for most kids,” said Maggie Stephens, a special education teacher at the U School who was among the first to sign on. “I think everyone wanted to take on this project because we either fell in love with Neil’s vision or we were so over everything else that was happening” in public education.

Geyette says the work of the Innovation Network is to create new paradigms, not just new schools.

“Maybe I’ve been foolish in this regard, but mere survival is but one state of being,” he said. “If you’re given this opportunity, you’ve got to do it right. The question is how do we make the outside world see this as valuable. … That’s the work that I have to get better at.

“We need to change people’s views overall on what success is.”

All this points to the question of whether a District as large, bureaucratic and under-resourced as Philadelphia’s is ready for truly innovative schools, regardless of District leadership’s sincere intentions.

Geyette and other principals are seeing that noble goals go only so far without a willingness to change the rules of the game. Creating the Innovation Network “represents the District’s will to do the work,” said Geyette. But ultimately, “this work is about the battles with the bureaucracy that you can or can’t win. … At the end of the day, this system is not [yet] ready to accommodate different schools.”

While that transition happens, perhaps slower than many would like, the principals, faculty, and students at the Innovation Network schools constantly push the boundaries in search of something that better serves Philadelphia’s students.

“This doesn’t happen in the city often, what’s happening here,” Geyette said. “I’ve been given some kind of leash to do this, and I’m not going to compromise on that. I’m not scared. I know what we’re doing here is maybe, for right now, too outside the box, because it’s so different for everybody else that I’m always in trouble, I’m always getting yelled at, somebody is always threatening my job. But I don’t care. I’m going to keep this place safe until you understand. And you’ll get it.”

He is confident that the kids are benefiting and that they will be his biggest data point.

“These kids [are] doing spectacular things here. I’ve been in education. I’m the son of a single mother and teacher. I grew up around teachers and around schools. I’ve been an educator in this district for 10 years. I’ve seen magnet schools, I’ve worked in neighborhood schools. Regardless of the traditionally measured outcomes, the way that our kids are talking about themselves is … I’ve never seen it before. Ever.”

Melanie Bavaria
Students take ownership

Minaya-Bravo’s loyalty to the U School model has paid off. She spent last summer in a program at Harvard and is applying to several top-tier colleges. Anthony Rivera recently earned an early-decision spot in the world-renowned film program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He spent last summer in a program for high school students there and has two films already under his belt.

Of course, most U School students haven’t spent the summer at Harvard or made multiple films. But they also say they are better off for the experience.

Ameon Wright, a junior, acknowledges that he has struggled in the classroom for a long time. He started 9th grade at W.B. Saul, a special-admission high school focused on agriculture, but quickly realized that the learning environment was not a good fit.

“I always felt dumb going to that school because a lot of kids would talk to me like I was dumb. What they taught there, it was very confusing,” said Wright. “Teaching to the test” just didn’t work for him.

The U School, however, is totally different. And it does work for him.

His friend, Soloman Gay, also a junior, attended the U School and told Wright about his experience, saying that the school had already given him opportunities that he had not anticipated going into high school.

“I thought it was all a joke. Coming here, all the things he told me about – they really did live up to my expectations,” said Wright.

Like Rivera and Minaya-Bravo, Wright is involved in the Dream Team, a program run by the nonprofit Future Project, which sends a “Dream Director” to underserved schools to help students realize their interests and pursue them through real-world partnerships and opportunities.

Wright wants to eventually organize a public art exhibit that explores the complicated and sometimes conflicting personalities of his father, as an example of the multifaceted emotions in all of us. He is also working with Temple students to start a podcast. His sophomore year, he and a group of students put on a fashion show, exhibiting clothes they had made from recycled fabrics, and later visited the Fashion Institute of Technology to see what it takes to apply to an art school.

“I used to stress out because I’m like ‘damn, I’m too dumb.’ Here, I’m building confidence, but I’m very — I’m a person that’s very unsure about a lot of things I do, you can ask anybody. For a long time, I never realized what I was good at at all,” said Wright, crediting both his peers and his teachers for this transformation.

“The teachers here really do care about you. They interact with you on a teacher level, but also a friend level. So they’re not just teaching; they talk to you as if you’re a person, not like you’re just an idiot, like you’re just some puppet. They talk to you as if they’re trying to connect with you.”

Student referrals, like Gay’s recommendation to Wright, are one way the U School recruits students. Gay appreciates that there are different ways he can earn credits. And he appreciates his principal.

“If the topic is police violence, I can go and do an informational text on the racism theory in Grand Theft Auto, because there’s a theory that the police, computer-generated humans, are more racist — are more violent towards the African American characters than the Caucasian characters.”

Gay, who wants to pursue video game design after high school, looked at the statistics and wrote an informational text on the subject.

The structures that allowed for this type of flexibility are, according to Gay, the brilliance of Geyette’s vision.

“He talks a lot, so watch out for that. But he’s a genius. I’ll say that.”

After those first years of constant change, the school finally feels more settled. Almost all of the students in the inaugural class are on track to graduate in June. Many of those pioneer students, determined to avoid their neighborhood high school, chose U School while having no clue what it stood for. But now students are recruited through positive word-of-mouth, and those who stayed through the growing pains are the school’s most vocal advocates. Student retention has increased as a result.

They are tweaking, but no longer reinventing the wheel. Since the beginning, though, the foundation of iron-clad relationships between students and faculty has been unwavering. This not only comes from a strong advisory program called “possi,” which meets every day, but also a more generally explicit commitment to seeing students as valuable stakeholders. While this mentality permeates the school, it starts at the top.

The students, particularly of that inaugural class, are aware that they are the first big data point. Their successes, they feel, are not just for them, but will validate the school’s entire mission. With 98 percent of the first graduating class applying to colleges, this class wants to show the world that school can be different and still successful.

“I just know that a lot of people in the District and a lot of people in general don’t believe in Geyette, in his vision and the way he feels about our school,” said Minaya-Bravo. “So I feel like it’s up to us, the first graduating class, to really put it out there and say ‘look, we got accepted into these really good schools’ and just proved to everyone that it works, that we got this. It feels like I owe it to him for everything that he’s done for me. … I owe it to him to help him prove to everyone that this model works.”

With a wide range of paths ahead of his students, Geyette just hopes that they take the school’s motto — Love, Dream, Do — with them when they leave. Perhaps some might even take the lessons of their unique high school experience and pay it forward by becoming educators themselves.

He hopes one of them will become the principal of the U School someday. “That’s one of the dreams he has,” said Rivera. “So he’s really pushing us towards a lot.”

This article is one of three in the final installment of “Recreating School” a project by the Notebook on innovative high schools funded by a fellowship from the national Education Writers Association. Reported and written by freelancer Melanie Bavaria.