By his own description, Neil Geyette was raised around badass educators, led by his mother.
A public school teacher, Rhonda Geyette raised her son by herself. She had started her career in what were then called “open” schools, places where the world, so to speak, was the classroom.
His mom thrived in this system. But when Geyette was growing up just outside Newark, N.J., where his mother worked, tradition ruled. During his education, he sat at his desk, one of a neat row, and listened to the teacher give a lesson. “I had no agency or choice,” he remembered.
In 1991, when Geyette was 9, the family decamped for Minnesota, and there, everything changed.
For 4th grade, he was enrolled in Marcy Open School, which was closer to his mother’s educating roots. For the first time, he found himself really engaged.
At Marcy, there were no rows of desks and no sitting quietly while the teacher talked. Instead, there were “interest centers,” hives of activity, where students helped each other build and create and solve problems. The teacher was always present, but her role was to structure lessons around the students’ passions. And, by meeting students individually and in small groups, she made sure they were all building their skills in reading, math, science, and art.
He remembers the first time he realized there was something different going on here. He told his teacher that he was fascinated by a particular bear in the zoo. The teacher, Kathy Scoggin, told him to do research, go there with a camera and microphone, interview the director of the exhibit, and prepare a “news report” on the bear for the class.
“I was blown away by the amount of agency I was given,” he said. The school changed his life because it “valued and empowered kids.”
When he moved to a similarly “open” program at South High School in Minneapolis, he chose what to focus on and created his own projects. During senior year, he attended classes at the University of Minnesota.
“I was raised by educators and was around educators who really cared about kids and teaching and learning and not wasting kids’ time,” he said. Like his mother and Kathy Scoggin.
Knowing these people “ is the most impactful thing that happened probably in my whole life.”
It’s the lesson that Geyette, 35, has brought to Philadelphia, where he is the designer and founder of the U School, which opened in 2014 and is now one of eight high schools in the Philadelphia School District founded on the idea of “innovation.”
The mission for these schools’ designers, including Geyette, was to create a school that would prepare the typical Philadelphia student — not just the superstars — to graduate with a truly meaningful diploma so they could succeed in college or a career.
It is a daunting task. When the innovative schools project started, just 24 percent of the District’s students enrolled in college after high school. And only 10 percent actually earned a four-year degree.
Potential was being wasted — potential in such students as Anthony Rivera, who almost gave up on school while growing up. And Argelis Minaya-Bravo, who found it hard to get past her anger. And Ameon Wright, who always felt “dumb” and overwhelmed in the schools he attended.
Something wasn’t working, and it started well before graduation.
A school for its users
The U in U School stands for “users,” based on the premise that school should be designed around the needs of its users — the students — not around adult preferences or the practices of 19th-century factories that used bells to move their workers from one task to another.
There are a few bedrock principles of the “innovative schools” model. They have to be built on students’ interests and involve real-world problem-solving and hands-on activities. They should aim to measure student learning and readiness by evaluating their competency in solving problems and completing tasks, rather than through traditional tests, and students should be supported to learn at their own pace. Ideally, for Geyette, they would not be locked into a four-year regimen of classes where they accumulate credits based on “seat time” instead of on what they actually know and can do.
The U School is built on this foundation, but as Geyette and the rest of the staff were presented with actual students, it has evolved and adapted. Like Philadelphia’s other innovative schools, it aims to teach such skills as time management, organization, collaboration, and engagement along with academic subjects like algebra, history, and chemistry.
It fully integrates technology into the classroom, but doesn’t rely on computer programs for instruction. U School teachers create their own material and content, deployed through Google Classroom. Students demonstrate mastery of specific skills through portfolios of work.
But as the U School gets ready to graduate its first cohort of students, it has developed as the most out-of-the-box of the schools in the Innovation Network. Its instructional program is certainly the most difficult to describe, and its radically different approach is both exciting and full of pitfalls.
In building the school, Geyette found through trial and error that expecting these students from some of the most challenged neighborhoods in Philadelphia to immediately take full control of their education was a stretch. So they are divided into groups based on how much guidance they need, not by their age and class level.
Some students spend their days in a more traditional-looking classroom with a teacher leading the class. Students more often work on learning the same skill or concept at the same time.
Others are in semi-autonomous classes with a short, 10- to 15-minute lesson followed by longer periods in which students work on their own or in small groups. These students check in with their teachers daily and have one-on-one conferences with their teachers every few weeks.
Among this group, by far the biggest in the school, different students are generally working on different things, depending on what they’ve already accomplished, how far along they are in a unit, and what particular “competency” they are working on. There are likely to be sophomores and seniors in the same classroom.
If the class is on immigration, for instance, and the end goal is an analytical presentation, one student might be doing exploratory reading about immigrants while another is honing a thesis — or, perhaps, making a stop-motion video on the topic.
This setup is markedly different from a traditional classroom because students often interact and help each other. In fact, that’s the idea. Seeing how far ahead other kids are can often provide motivation to those having more difficulty or taking longer to complete the work.
The highest level of autonomy is open only to juniors and seniors who earn the privilege, of which there are only a handful. These students can attend classes if they want, but they are completely in charge of managing their own time, meeting their deadlines, and completing a project, much like in college.
Minaya-Bravo described it as a flexible study hall. These students find that they seek guidance from teachers as often as other students, but make more of these interactions.
Determining the classroom model where each student is placed is, like most things at the U School, directed by the student, in consultation with the student's adviser and Geyette. If students are not prepared for the amount of freedom they are given, they may fall behind and have to reassess their placement with their teacher. If students choose a more-structured class, but may be ready for more autonomy, their adviser may push them to consider more independence. By graduation, the goal is to have each student able to function productively in semi-autonomous classes with limited direct oversight.
Flirting with failure — falling behind, realizing it, and reflecting on why — is a part of the process. Every student interviewed could tell a personal story of panic when they realized how much work they needed to make up and the dwindling amount of time to get it done.
“In a traditional classroom, kids never experience that, because they never own their time,” explained Geyette. So they fail, or do poorly, but don’t learn from it.
In the U School model, ideally, with each setback, students become increasingly aware of their personal shortcomings and their power to overcome them.
The result of these consultations and adjustments is a student population that is remarkably aware of how they learn and open about their academic strengths and weaknesses. Students frequently talk in detail about what skills they need to work on and how those skills are relevant to their life goals.
Although not all of the students are as far along in their ability to self-reflect, most are, particularly by the time they reach 10th or 11th grade.
Geyette, and the team he has put together, is responsible for engineering this environment that encourages kids to explore, assess, fail, and try again. In the process, the students engage in valuable exercises in self-evaluation that their teachers hope will help them wherever they go next, whether it is college or not.
“I don’t think it’s exclusively college,” said Charlie McGeehan, a humanities teacher. “I think that type of thinking … is important in the workplace, too. … That’s how most jobs work. There’s not a whole lot of jobs today where it’s like, ‘I come in on Monday and you tell me what I do, and I do it.’ I think that model is an industrial model, ‘here’s the assembly line.’ ... We’re trying to prepare kids for modern-economy jobs.”
Forging innovation out of chaos
After high school, Geyette went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Even though he already knew he wanted to be a teacher, he majored in history and political science. For a year after graduation, he taught world history in Mongolia.
Then he joined the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows, a since-discontinued “alternative certification” program that trains college graduates without education degrees to become teachers.
“I’d never in all my life when I lived in Newark been to Philadelphia,” he said. “I came here and I thought, ‘I’m not leaving.’ If Newark and Minneapolis had a baby, it would be Philadelphia. There’s a spirit here; there’s something here that connects with me.”
But for all his enthusiasm for the city and his zest for teaching, Philadelphia immediately thrust Geyette into the crucible of urban education. West Philadelphia High in 2006 was a maelstrom of tumult — a neighborhood high school lacking leadership and out of control, with a few hundred students rattling around in an ancient structure built for thousands. Fires broke out daily, teachers were beaten up, student suspensions soared. Learning was hit or miss at best.
“It was a disaster. It was the most dangerous school in the state,” Geyette recalled. “It was a highly dysfunctional place.”
The principal was dismissed and a new one, Saliyah Cruz, was put in charge. To calm the chaos, Cruz started putting emphasis on restorative practices instead of harsh discipline and encouraging stronger relationships between students and staff. She also expanded the smaller “academies” within the school, trying to create more intimate environments for students to learn and choose a general direction that interested them.
Cruz worked with teachers like Simon Hauger, who was running West’s highly successful Automotive Academy, and Geyette, who joined the Urban Academy, focused on community organizing and social justice, and after two years became its director.
But then a new superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, arrived with her own ideas for school reform, and a power struggle ensued over West. The administration’s idea of innovation was adding Saturday school and doubling down on classroom techniques that clearly had not worked for these students, instituting lengthy blocs of remedial reading and math.
Cruz was replaced. Geyette transferred to Franklin Learning Center.
But the innovative ideas forged in the chaos at West took root elsewhere. West’s Automotive Academy under Hauger became the Workshop School, also in the Innovation Network. Through the District, Cruz and Geyette received a $3 million grant from the Carnegie Foundation in 2013 to fund the design and start-up years of two new innovative schools.
There were a few requirements: They had to evaluate students on their mastery of grade-level specific skills — called competencies — as demonstrated through projects and could not have any admissions criteria, not even regarding behavior or attendance. And the learning environment had to be “asynchronous,” where students are not being fed the same information and learning the same skills at the same time and in the same place.
Those two schools became the U School and the LiNC.
A school he would have thrived in
To make such schools succeed requires a staff that is willing to go all-in and break out of the mold of traditional teaching.
They also need to trust their leader and yearn to be part of creating something new.