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SLA takes its learning approach to the masses

recreating school
  • sla ms kidswithteacher
    Darryl Murphy

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In a corner of a classroom at Science Leadership Academy Middle School is a bookcase with green shelves and a plaque on top, where several students wrote their names in marker.

Having worked on its design, they claimed the bookcase as their own.

Visible around the school are other bookcases, some festooned with polka dots, stripes, handprints, and words, all built by creative 5th graders.

These personalized bookcases are the result of both a gift and a problem. 

Besides the normal headaches of starting a new school — not having a copy machine until 24 hours before students entered the building, unpacking boxes, getting the phones properly set up — SLAMS was lacking books.

The gift: Hilary Hamilton, a math and science teacher, had received a $500 grant from the Philadelphia Writing Project to buy books. However, she wasn’t sure which books to buy, where to store them, and how to make sure the money went toward books that the kids would want to read.

SLAMS, as it is known, is the third of three SLA schools in Philadelphia – the others, which are high schools, are SLA Center City and SLA Beeber. SLAMS is the only middle school in the School District's Innovation Network, which includes the two SLA high schools and five other high schools. (SLA Beeber plans to add a magnet middle school next year.) Each is working independently to overhaul what education looks like in the School District. 

In deciding how to spend the grant money, Hamilton and her students took up this challenge right away.

During the first week of school, the equally new 5th-grade students and teachers did a series of community-building activities. In one, kids brought in five objects that they thought represented them. In another, teachers wrote out prompts such as “I feel upset when” and the students filled in their own answers. At the end of the week, with a large collection of student feelings and a better understanding of their collective identity, the students walked around the room and together they came up with what they, as a class, most cared about.

These became the categories for their new classroom library.

“We wanted our library to match what we value,” said Hamilton, “not just ‘historical fiction,’ ‘science,’ etc.”

The students said they valued humor and comedy, “so we want a lot of comic books and humorous books,” she said. “One of the categories was ‘taking care of yourself,’ so they decided that that would mean they needed more business books, which in itself is super interesting.”

Next, the students did digital and in-person research about what books they should buy for the library. They looked up Amazon book reviews and used the online book database. They consulted Goodreads and compiled a list of books that fit their categories. The students interviewed the librarian at the public library branch down the street, a manager at the Penn bookstore, and someone from the Reading, Writing and Literacy program at Penn.

The students were having so much fun, a few started asking when school was going to “actually” start. Little did they know.

Once they had their master list, the math began. They had $500 to spend, so they learned about prices and decimals, comparing the prices of books on various sites to find the cheapest option.

“They were doing multi-digit addition and subtraction with decimal numbers as they were keeping track of how much money they had to spend,” Hamilton said.

After the books were ordered and delivered, the teachers threw a book-release party and something amazing happened.

“The students came in and they were actually screaming," Hamilton said. "They were playing with their books, and then they just naturally fell into independent reading because the kids were legitimately and authentically excited about reading.”

Hamilton and the other teachers were feeling great. The first project of the year at a brand-new project-based school had been a success.

Besides the immediate skill development, the students were also learning bigger concepts and principles of lifelong learning: “How do we organize a library? What’s your relationship with books? Why does all of this matter?”

But the students weren’t done yet. They came up with something that the teachers hadn’t thought of. Where will the books go? Can we make bookcases?

So the second part of the semester was spent planning the bookcases. Students learned about area, perimeter, volume, and how to create scale drawings. They learned about what makes communities function, what “work” means in a scientific context, and various uses for simple machines. At the end, every student designed a bookcase and then, after they presented their ideas, the class voted on the two best designs. Partnering with another school in the Innovation Network, they finally built their bookcases.

It was a teacher’s dream.

“There is a ton of reading and writing happening, tons of speaking and listening, tons of math and science, huge creative thinking,” Hamilton said. “ And the kids really own our school.”

After spending the whole semester working on various parts of this project, the students spent the last day before winter break painting their bookcases. The handprints, stripes, polka dots and words that now adorn the community library bookshelves were a group compromise as they were wrapping up what was truly a group project.

“Objectively, the coolest part, though, was [that the] question shifted from being a teacher-owned idea and project to a more student-owned project,” Hamilton said. “That’s resulted in independent reading times when kids will run off to a bookshelf that they literally built themselves with all this other knowledge of everything that goes into that, and they pull out a book that they have researched and picked out. They really own it.”

Not to mention the strong sense of community that they built along the way.

  • sla ms shelf
    Darryl Murphy

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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."

  • sla ms tim boyle
    Darryl Murphy

***

In many ways, SLAMS presents an enormous opportunity for the Science Leadership Academy model that founding principal Chris Lehmann started 12 years ago. On a national level, SLA has received accolades and media attention.

But many say the school is succeeding because it selects its students, not because of the inherent value of the model. One goal of the Innovation Network is to experiment and come up with new best practices that all schools can use to better engage all students, especially those who are poorly served by what exists now.

But still unsettled is whether the SLA model can work in the average neighborhood high school in a cash-strapped district serving a diverse set of students. Philadelphia students come with various socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, different levels of exposure to poverty and trauma, and a spectrum of academic skill sets.

“I think what’s been the initial knock [for SLA] is that we’re either better resourced or we pick the kids or we’re so dissimilar to what the neighborhood schools have that there is this cognitive dissonance,” Boyle said. “We’ve always been better at attracting people outside of Philadelphia to come and … see what we’re doing than with people within Philadelphia.”

SLA has not had much success in getting local principals, teachers, and central office decision-makers to spend time in its schools and observe the learning process, Boyle said.

He blames this partially on Philadelphia’s lack of a “collaborative culture” among schools and SLA’s reputation as being put on a pedestal compared to the rest of the District. Philadelphia has a long history of marginalizing, rather than emulating, educators who attract widespread attention for innovation or excellence.

“It’s very easy to box us in as elitist,” he said. With Philadelphia being “a very blue-collar, typical Northeast metropolis place … people [don’t always] want to go learn from what’s best practice or award-winning or whatever,” Boyle said.

On the other hand, “I don’t think I’ve ever met a family who thought, ‘Oh, SLA, you’re a bunch of fancy pants and I don’t want my kids associated with that,’” Boyle said.

But in SLAMS, SLA has a chance to change that “elitist” reputation. The teachers, and Boyle, were lured precisely by the adventure and challenge of adapting the model for average Philadelphia neighborhood kids.

“That’s the most compelling thing about SLAMS, right? We changed the paradigm,” Boyle said. “What attracted me most to the job is saying that we can take the model and make it more applicable to people who thought it wasn’t applicable to them.”

For him, SLAMS is not just another SLA school, but the next step in pushing a larger conversation about what education should look like across the District.

“I hope SLAMS is the accelerator,” he said. “I hope SLAMS is what gets the people who are on the fence about whether they should inquire about what we’re doing or not to get themselves over and see. … I hope we keep opening up schools because we open great schools, but if that’s all we ever do, then that’s a really slow way to improve school quality and also a really pompous way.

“We’ve failed generations of children, children of color and children of poverty. We’re in this for the movement. We’re in this for the larger health of Philadelphia education. Not as saviors, but as people doing some work and [who] wanted to have our work interact with other people as well. That’s what I hope happens in the next five years.”

For Saunders, it harkens back to her early days as a special education teacher at Ferguson, where she had her students doing projects because they connected with that approach, but before “project-based learning” was a buzzword in progressive education.

“As a parent, you want the best thing for your kid, you know?” Saunders said. “... I give such kudos to the parents who have instilled their trust in us, because that’s your most precious commodity. … Are we going to make mistakes? Of course.” But, she promises her parents, “there is not a person in this city who will work harder for your child.”

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 coming soon to thenotebook.org.

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Melanie Bavaria

Melanie Bavaria is a freelance writer and videographer covering education issues as well as refugee and immigrant populations in Philadelphia.