In the corner of Bridget Bujak’s office is a clothes rack decked with shoe pockets, each labeled with the name of a student. Instead of shoes, each holds a cellphone.
Throughout the day, Bujak, the principal of the LINC high school, holds meetings, works on reports, and makes phone calls through bursts of ringing and beeping. She barely notices.
“I keep asking [students] to make sure they are on silent, but you know, they forget. That’s what I get for having a cellphone policy, I guess.”
Bujak laughs cheerfully.
Each morning, the students at LINC walk into school expecting order and a nurturing environment. They go through a metal detector — as they would at most Philadelphia high schools — but the security guard greets them by name. Their principal is both no-nonsense and generous with hugs. And they take typical high school courses, but their method of learning is not quite so typical — working on projects with other students, but also progressing through units at their own pace, with frequent one-on-one support from their teacher.
Students describe the academics as more rigorous than in their old schools. Occasionally they grumble that the teachers can be too hard on them. But they also say that the school is like a family, where one teacher or another is always willing to help with their work, or just with life.
“The metaphor I like to use in my meetings is: Who is going to be that ‘school mom or dad’ for that struggling student who might be under the radar?” Bujak said.
It has been a fraught journey to this place, both for the LINC and for Bujak.
LINC stands for Learning in New Contexts. Along with the U School, it opened its doors in September 2014 to great fanfare. The two schools were developed to be part of the Innovation Network in the Philadelphia School District, designed to provide project-based, student-centered, relevant education to young people in one of Philadelphia’s most-stressed neighborhoods.
The Carnegie Foundation offered support for the planning year and two years after opening.
Then-Mayor Michael Nutter visited on the LINC's opening day to tout its promise. Teachers had been carefully chosen for a willingness to embrace something new, and students were hopeful that the environment would be different from what they’d find in their neighborhood school.
Saliyah Cruz, the former principal at West Philadelphia High School and the founding principal at LINC, was the architect behind the model.
But nine days after the school opened, Cruz announced that she was leaving for a job in Baltimore. She assured the District and the public that the structures and the staff were in place to launch the school according to its vision.
Not so. Absent its guiding leader, who had designed and planned the school as a bulwark of innovation, the LINC devolved into chaos. It stayed that way for a year, going through three more principals in rapid succession, until Bujak took over in 2015.
But now, LINC has made a comeback. Thrown into the experiment of fundamentally redesigning high school without any relevant experience, Bujak boned up on the model, studied the founding principles, stayed true to her brand of leadership, and honed her own vision of how to invigorate education and care for students in a tattered urban neighborhood.
LINC's story illustrates the importance of leadership in promoting and sustaining innovation — and how dependent the whole enterprise can be on an original visionary. It is also a lesson in how education deemed “innovative” can take many forms. It is not always about competency-based learning, project-based learning, personalized learning, or any other models that often become buzzwords. It can be about giving a community a different option and simply finding the best fit.
For Bujak, the key to reinventing high school at the LINC started with stability. She turned to bedrock values: structure and consistency balanced with care and creativity, while always keeping the students at the center.
When she arrived at the LINC, Bujak, a veteran of Edison and Olney High Schools, knew she had a rescue mission on her hands. Many of the original students and teachers had left. The staff was in upheaval, with tension between the remaining original teachers, who were frantic that what they signed up for was in jeopardy, and new teachers, who were less tuned in to the original innovation mandate.
For guidance, Bujak turned to the students themselves.
“I would do mini-focus groups, do mini-interviews, or just talk to the kids in the hallway, like, ‘What do you think about uniforms?’” she said. “‘What do you think about cellphones?’
“It’s important to have student voice. They really were the prominent source of information.”
Every few weeks, Bujak conducted all-student town halls to air issues.
“Like the cellphones. We complained about that,” recalled Juan Marreri, now a senior and one of the original freshmen who gutted it out. “She does this thing in the auditorium, and she puts all the stuff up on the board that we complained about, and she asks us how to fix this.”
That first year, Bujak abandoned most of what had been devised during the school’s planning — personalized instruction, new types of assessments, interdisciplinary learning, restorative behavior supports — in favor of traditional classes and grading and a behavior-tracking system based on incentives and sanctions.
But she never lost sight of the original mission or of students’ constant need for careful tending.
“We’re like a big family; she’s like our school mom,” said junior Maionne Tyler. “She’ll see us in the hallway. She’ll pull us aside to have a one-on-one conversation. If you need feedback, she’ll give you feedback. If you don’t need her feedback, she just listens.”
One morning, Bujak dealt firmly with a student for being out in the hallway when he should have been in class.
Later, she went looking for him. “Do you need a hug now?” she asked the young man, named Anthony.
“Yes,” he said, reaching out his arms.
The students like both her bubbly personality and her consistent commitment to rules.
“Everybody is a lot more straight. Ms. Bujak got control,” said Angel Pineiro, an 11th grader.