The good news is that thousands of American Educators know the story of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, and are working to incorporate much of what Principal Chris Lehman and his talented team are building there. The bad news is that leaves about a million great educators who don’t know this story and either don’t know what the picture of education can look like, or don’t even know that such a picture exists. I am not going to change that bad news with my blog, but if it makes a dent, then my morning at SLA was more than worthwhile. If you are reading this blog because you want to know what the best of high school education looks like, read on.
Much smarter and more influential people than I have visited and reported on SLA. The President and Bill Gates have both visited. They get 3-5 visits a week; the students naturally come over and chat with the stranger in the blue blazer. The SLA web site is packed with good summaries of their program, so I am just going to hit a few high points and suggest you visit their site. And they host a major EduCon meeting in January, so you can register for that and visit them yourself.
SLA is a public magnet school and a partnership with The Franklin Institute, a major museum and science center in Philadelphia. They have a rigorous college prep program, though devoid of AP’s. All of their classes are taught in a project-based environment and as a community they embrace the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection. In just three hours, I saw just how deeply ALL of these values permeate all that happens at SLA.
A few stats:
- About 500 students, grades 9-12 (a middle school is in discussion)
- 1000 applications each year for 125 spots
- 7,500 partner organizations
- Students from every zip code in Philly
- 50% free or reduced lunch
- Typical class size is 33
- High 90th percentile go on to four-year college
- Same funding as regular public schools
The students they admit don’t fit a particular mold; in fact they tend to admit students who DON’T fit a mold. They are looking for quirky, creative students who would not do well in a traditional public school; willing to work hard; get their hands dirty; want to get out of their seats and try stuff. They do not just take the smart kids, which is critical, because some people think that only high-achieving students can succeed when the rigid bars are removed as they are at SLA. Clearly this is not the case. This is a public school that acts in many ways like a private school, except it is free and id not caught in the inertia of success that is keeping many great private schools relatively static.
Jeremy Spry, who spent the morning taking me around says that the real key is that the teachers and classes share a common language based on the core values, and a common progression through grade and subject level. The process seems messy to an outsider but is highly intentional and largely based on the model of understanding by design. We wandered the halls and classrooms, talked to students and teachers, and to try to attribute quotes would be impossible. But that is how SLA works. Students would turn away from a lab project to tell me what they were working on, and then just go back to work. Teachers were free to chat in several classes because students are focused on self-created and self-directed projects. Discussion with a visitor is just another part of the learning frame for them.
I got such a rush of great input, I am going to have to resort to bullet points and shotgun comments. But take note; there are a ton of really good ideas here that would help many of us start to re-frame largely teacher-directed, content-centric learning:
- Courses build through a scaffold of skill level. 9th grade science classes, for example focus more on lecture and skill building, and by the time students are in the higher grades, regardless of subject, they are creating and directing their own projects. These projects don’t come once a term; they are the basis of the entire course sequence.
- They do not have honors or AP classes. If students are passionate about a subject and want to pursue higher levels of a subject there are many opportunities with partner organizations, independent study and research, or attending a local university.
- The Franklin is a huge influence and resource. 9th graders spend a day a week there embedded in mini-courses.
- About 40% of the senior class elects to TA for a class or teacher they are particularly interested in. This is part of the community sense that Chris and his team have developed. They really do care about each other and engage that as part of what they do each day. This effectively reduces the student teacher ratio and creates a close family atmosphere of caring about each other.
- Jeremy: “We didn’t actually create any of these programs. We just find what worked and do it”.
- Anthony, 11th grade student, physics class: “This is a community. At lots of schools kids come and learn and leave. We stay after hours and grow as people. For many of us this is a second home. We have this founding principle that diversity is critical to our ability to work in the world, and we have diversity of skin color, economic status, and opinions. We just don’t have regular boundaries here”.
- Physics teacher: “Our classes are well-managed chaos. One thing we really focus on is reflection in every class. I ask my students to understand the choices they make and how those choices and results could change. This is their process, not mine. They need to think about how and why they come up with a certain experiment in the first place, and be able to articulate that.”
- Jeremy: “We make “time” the elective. The schedule allows students to pursue their own passions in blocks of time. What they do with it is up to them, both on campus or with off-campus partners.”
- Alexa Dunn, teacher and director of the senior TA program: “The program is totally replicable. We also get a lot of college student teachers, but the critical part about having our own seniors act as TA’s is that we develop that community, peer-to-peer relationship.”
- Dunn: “We make programs decisions all the time; we never really take a time-out of thinking about how we can be better. Most of the faculty are engaged in on-going professional development, either for an advanced degree or internally. The faculty get together every week to present to each other, and that creates a mindset that we are learners. We learn from our students, which makes the classroom truly transactional. We pursue new knowledge together, which ties directly into the PBL model.”
- Engineering teacher: “Our model is to fail fast, fail often, fail forward. In 9th grade we teach basics but after that students are pretty much using the skills of iterative learning, and that carries over into their humanities classes as well. By 12th grade they are writing their own learning plans, developing projects, and bringing ideas to prototype. The goal is depth. Students present to each other and talk about what is working and what is not working, and it is amazing how often a group working on a completely different project will be able to chime in and help on a problem.”
I sat down with Chris and he really crystalized more about why and how SLA is making so much headway on nothing more than what other schools have available to them. He says the systems and structures they have put in place make people better teachers (“I am a better principal here”) than they would be at another public school. He believes that the history of other progressive schools is that they become places where adults are free to do their own thing, but there is not a through-going pathway for the students. SLA has constrained this effect with a mission that is highly student-centered and which creates a real sense of community. This balance of freedom and structure hits a sweet spot of creativity, which is just not present at many other schools.
During the day I raised every argument I could about why this model won’t work elsewhere, and I can’t find one. The students are not the brightest or the richest. SLA does not have more resources than other public schools, and a lot less than many private schools. Yet the students get in to all the best colleges. They use their time more wisely, and have radically busted the silos of perceived ownership of time and space by risk-averse adults. They have not invented something new; they have overcome the fear, inertia, or lack of a model that have prevented others from moving intentionally to a more real-world model of learning. It is exportable and scalable. I don’t think that all schools should wholly adopt the SLA model. I do think they have created a mix of organizational culture, process, and structure, as well as a pedagogy, that is vastly more efficient at preparing ALL of their students for their own futures than either public or private norms. For leaders who want to show their teams a picture of the possible, SLA would be a darn good place to start.