The eight schools in the Innovation Network are remarkably different in how they approach their mandate to re-create what school looks like in Philadelphia, but they also share a common set of beliefs: Students are placed at the center. Learning should occur through real-world experiences. Problem-solving is a focus. Building relationships is key. Extended “advisory” periods provide the time and space.
SLAMS, just starting its second year, is in West Philadelphia and is the only SLA school designed as a neighborhood school, meaning that it automatically accepts all students who attend Powel, the elementary school down the street that goes up to 4th grade.
Although SLA is by far the most established of the innovation models in Philadelphia, SLAMS is distinctly different from the two high schools. Besides the obvious fact that it has younger students, it also has no admissions criteria. The school benefits from the groundwork (and reputation) of the brand that came before and also embodies a new direction with new challenges.
For Erika Saunders, a special education teacher at SLAMS, it was exactly this combination — the SLA model, but serving a different population — that made her most excited to work at the startup school.
“I found out about SLA when it first opened and thought that somebody had crawled in my head and saw what I want to do. … I couldn’t have fallen in love with it any more,” said Saunders, whose son eventually attended SLA Center City.
As a former middle school special education teacher at Ferguson Elementary, she was already using many project-based learning ideas in her own classroom before there was an official name for it. She wanted to be involved as more than simply a parent.
“This is a dream for me to work in a project-based, inquiry-driven middle school, of all things. And the thought that I was going to be a founding member was just beyond anything I could have imagined. So yeah, I jumped on this crazy ride and have been loving it ever since.”
Tim Boyle, SLAMS’ principal, was given the task of adapting the SLA model to serve younger students who weren’t pre-selected. And while teachers like Saunders were recruited for their commitment to the idea and the model, parents and students can be skeptical at first.
“We get a bunch of kids who show up because it’s their neighborhood school,” Boyle said. And selling the model is harder once students are in the door. The educators have to explain to parents — translate, actually — “how what we care about and what we’re going to privilege at our school is different.” He warns parents that it may be uncomfortable for families and for kids as they adjust.
“Their teaching methods are different, so [the impact on test scores] is very concerning to me,” said Myriko Wade-Jones, whose daughter, Jayla, was in the inaugural SLAMS class. “I am still not 100 percent sold on that part. ”
Wade-Jones was also one of many parents who were thrown by the practice of having no homework. Without seeing homework as a reflection of what kids are doing in school and how they are understanding the material, many parents feel powerless and disconnected.
“In the beginning, I was very, very concerned,” Wade-Jones said. “Every day she would come home and I would say, ‘Where is your homework?’ and she would say, ‘We didn’t get any,’ and for me that was troubling.”
Boyle says the school is committed to strong academics, but doesn’t put as much value on test scores as other schools that the students have attended. He tells parents that, although the school cares about the content that the children are learning, the emphasis is on helping them understand and analyze information — “higher-order thinking skills.”
“This can be very hard for parents,” he said. They don’t know how to assess the school when the work that their children are doing and the way that learning is happening are foreign to them.
Other parents come to the school already familiar with SLA and the reputation it has built over 12 years. At SLA Center CIty, thousands of students vie for admission every year, drawn by its constant evolution, its unique approach to learning, and — not incidentally — its high college admission and success rates. SLA grads go to college, and they succeed in college, and the inquiry-driven approach doesn’t hinder success in more traditional lecture-hall courses at big state schools.
For some parents, this was the draw. They were intrigued that the model was being adapted for younger students.
“I think we were definitely aware of [SLA] and actually, in trying to map out to the degree that you can that far in advance, we thought that one day SLA may be a viable option and a good fit for him,” said Lauren Tom, whose son was in the first 5th-grade class at SLAMS. “We were aware of the reputation, but also kind of excited that they were moving to the middle school level and the non-magnet level.”
Boyle and his teachers must thread the line between introducing an unfamiliar education paradigm and keeping expectations high, all while trying to bring parents around to see the value of what they’re doing.
“There’s a lot of different academic programming,” Boyle said. “I don’t want to say [we have] different academic expectations, but how we get kids from A to B, and where we have to start to get them where we want them to go, is very different than at the high school, where it’s 1,500 kids trying for 250 spots.”
However, the underpinnings of the model remain, such as the advisories.
While the SLA high schools have two long advisories per week, at SLAMS there are four shorter ones. “We tweaked the time,” he said, but the “soul” of the advisory — building relationships, giving students the freedom to be creative — remains “exactly the same.”
For Wade-Jones and the educators, it was a journey.
After about two weeks, Wade-Jones contacted Hamilton, Jayla’s adviser, to get to the bottom of the homework situation. The two talked about the various research studies about whether, and in what circumstances, homework for young children is an effective learning tool.
Wade-Jones felt reassured, and she has since found other ways to be in constant contact with the school — calling or emailing her daughter’s teachers and adviser, talking to the faculty when she comes to pick up her daughter, and looking at her daughter’s progress through Google Classroom. She feels confident in her ability to monitor and stay involved with her daughter’s academic success and thinks the faculty has done a good job reaching out to parents frequently and thoroughly.
“We are so used to having homework and we feel like homework provides structure and another piece of learning,” Wade-Jones said. “It is hard to get out of that [mindset].”
Boyle acknowledges that the teachers and parents are still figuring it out together..
“We took away some fundamental, elemental things about school and replaced them, and maybe we didn’t always do the best job of explaining the replacement process,” he said. “One, explaining why we did it and two, explaining that no, it’s just different, but here’s how you pay attention now. To say that on a neighborhood level? I think Philadelphia is really comfortable doing that in a choice-based system, but it’s not very comfortable doing it in a neighborhood system. For some reason, that feels riskier.”
Now Wade-Jones actually sees the no-homework policy as a benefit, allowing her daughter to pursue more extracurricular activities, such as membership in a youth orchestra, that add to her personal and academic growth.
But it can be difficult for both parents and the District to wrap their heads around a radically different approach to school and learning.
“I really went into this school with blind faith,” said Wade-Jones. “I was nervous.”
Saunders, as a teacher and a parent of an SLA Center City student, understands why parents can feel uncomfortable with a school that looks so different from the one they are used to.
“Had SLA been in its first year, I probably wouldn’t have sent my son there,” Saunders said. “I would have been extremely hesitant, let’s put it that way. It’s frightening. There’s no doubt about it. The stakes couldn’t be higher.”
Now, she tries to show parents how the school will give their children something above and beyond.
“They’re not going to teach your child to take a test, I’ll admit that.” Instead, she says, children will learn skills that become transferable anywhere.
“This place is going to teach your child how to think,” she says. “That doesn’t happen a lot."