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A troubled district gambles on reinventing high schools

education week
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    Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/Education Week




by Benjamin Herold for Education Week

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Six months after investing millions of dollars in expanding three of Philadelphia’s most innovative educational programs, Superintendent William R. Hite is doubling down on his bet to improve the troubled District by putting new models of teaching and learning in place.

Although he says the cash-strapped city school system will need $440 million in as-yet-uncommitted revenues just to provide a “bare minimum” level of service to its 131,000 students in the 2014-15 school year, Mr. Hite in February pushed for and won approval to open three unconventional high schools next school year. The price tag for the new schools remains unclear, but will easily run into the millions of dollars next year alone, prompting concerns from some public education advocates that more money will be diverted away from existing schools.

The superintendent insists, though, that the Philadelphia District must reimagine its high schools to woo back families who have left for charter schools and meet the expectations for students embodied in the new Common Core state standards.

“It’s about providing opportunities for children to apply information in ways that are relevant and meaningful to them, to do that in situations where they can work as members of a diverse team, and to learn from their failures,” Mr. Hite said in a recent interview.

All three of the newly approved schools will feature project-based instructional models, push students to learn outside the walls of the traditional classroom, and use “blended” approaches that incorporate online learning — but not to the detriment of strong teacher-student relationships, District officials say.

Take Building 21, one of the newly approved schools, which was co-founded by two Harvard University doctoral students. One of them is Laura Shubilla, who previously led the Philadelphia Youth Network, a nationally recognized nonprofit group dedicated to providing teenagers with access to college and career opportunities.

The school will eventually offer 14- through 24-year-olds opportunities to select their own mix of classroom-based instruction, online learning, “studio” time in which they are guided through classroom content and community-based projects, and workplace experience.

Students will also receive school-issued computing devices, although Ms. Shubilla emphasizes that adaptive software will be used only in a limited way so as not to detract from the “facilitation” role Building 21 teachers are expected to play.

Eventually, the new school intends to do away with traditional grade levels. Instead, it will use a “competency-based” approach, in which students advance toward both a high school diploma and postsecondary credit by demonstrating mastery of key knowledge and skills.

“To what extent can students be designers of their own learning? That’s the big idea we want to test,” Ms. Shubilla said.

Mr. Hite embraces such outside-the-box thinking, and he plays up the community-based nature of Building 21, The U School, and The LINC, the new schools now planned to open. All will be non-selective in admitting students.

The superintendent hopes his investment strategy will spur the spread of hands-on, community-based, 21st-century learning throughout the District, opening new avenues for educators in both new and traditional schools to experiment and share ideas.

Reinventing high school

Now, Building 21 is scrambling to be ready for students in September. Hiring educators, recruiting students, reaching out to community groups, securing and preparing a facility, refining its unorthodox curriculum—the group’s to-do list is extensive.

Last month, though, a team of seven peope gathered inside a rented space in the city’s Germantown neighborhood to take on a less concrete task.

To truly reinvent the high school experience for students, Ms. Shubilla and her colleagues say, educators need to build new kinds of relationships with both their students and with the parents and communities they serve.

Building 21 also wants to “move the hearts and minds” of those inside Philadelphia’s shell-shocked education bureaucracy, many of whom are still reeling from layoffs, budget cuts, acrimonious labor negotiations, and the other fights that have accompanied steep declines in revenue during recent years.

So on this day, Ms. Shubilla and her colleagues are strategizing over how to spark honest conversations with the Philadelphia students, parents, teachers, and administrators who will be affected by the ambitious ideas of Building 21. The exercise is an example of the kind of “design thinking” in which the group hopes the school’s students will soon be engaged.

“It’s going to require some soul-searching,” Ms. Shubilla tells her colleagues. “This process makes you answer the question, ‘Why are you really doing this?’ ”

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared at Education Week.

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