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A troubled district gambles on reinventing high schools

By the Notebook on Mar 12, 2014 02:14 PM
Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/Education Week

Superintendent William R. Hite argues that the type of hands-on, inquiry-based learning done by students at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber is exactly what the struggling Philadelphia District needs.

by Benjamin Herold for Education Week

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?’ ”

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Comments (24)

Submitted by Lisa Haver on March 12, 2014 3:01 pm
"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." Of course it was unclear, as was everything else about these schools. When a member of APPS asked the SRC to explain what these schools were and to give some information about their funding, Chairman Green answered, "We're not going to answer your question." After a very brief "clarification" from Wendell Pritchell, the SRC voted to approve. I wonder why, if Superintendent Hite is so proud of these schools, he made it a point not to speak of them at a public meeting.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 12, 2014 3:41 pm
Must...Resist...All..Change.. The collective... doesn't... like... change...
Submitted by Alison McDowell (not verified) on March 12, 2014 6:50 pm
These schools were pushed through the SRC without public discussion. There were no opportunities to ask questions or to comment. I was there when a fellow APPS member tried to draw out SRC members during the February meeting. Greene said her question would not be answered. We aren't against change that supports students and teachers, but we are against being excluded from the conversation. I don't see how they can put forth these schools as "community schools" when they didn't originate from the needs and concerns of the communities in which they are to be located. You can't just slap a label on something and call it "community-based." There's real work involved, real outreach, real networks and relationships that must be nurtured. The way in which these schools are developing undermines that. Change for the sake of change, change that doesn't include the community isn't productive change. It's just shuffling the deck chairs and siphoning more public funds to private interests.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on March 12, 2014 6:46 pm
Ms. McDowell---Your last sentence is the goal, game, set and match. The fix is in no matter how morally, ethically and even legally bankrupt and corrupt it is. Why bother with democratic principles if you don't have and still get your way? You can just bitchslap them out the way as Green did about that question he didn't want to answer.
Submitted by TDA (not verified) on March 12, 2014 3:25 pm
Wow!! I want to gamble with other people's money too!! Here we go again. Another unproven educational model. Experimentation on the children of this city who can least afford to be experimented on. A school due to open in September, and the facility isn't acquired. The curriculum isn't set. This article is correct that we are existing in a "shell-shocked bureaucracy". It is the sole reason that these "educational reformers" are coming to rescue the students of this city. And aren't we lucky to have a superintendent so willing to allow this type of "innovation" into our cash-strapped district.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 12, 2014 4:03 pm
It's not about making anything better, it's about wasting the money, starving the school district even further of money, so that they can lay blame on the teachers, and force their hand to surrender their hard earned salaries. Take that money and funnel it to the charters. Therefore, your bankrupting the school district on purpose, therefore, robbing the poor to give to the rich, as in for profit charter operators who earn 500,000 per year. Now that's capitalism baby! It's all going to plan. Make the poor poorer and the rich richer. Everything these Broad Foundation (Fraud Foundation) robots do is follow orders to dismantle public education by taking public dollars and misspending them, therefore creating a phony crisis which justify why Unions have to dismantled so white collar education crooks can move in and then embezzle that money. Hite is only here to sink the SDP into oblivion leaving the real estate right where the Koch Bros. need it. Or, perhaps leaving where Bill Green needs it so he can buy it all up and rent it out to Charter operators. This country is just about done. There really needs to be a revolution in this country before it's say to late. The pitchforks and lighted torches need to gather at the mansion on the hill NOW!!!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 12, 2014 4:37 pm
Eliminate all neighborhood high schools. They don't work no matter how much money you sink into those bottomless pits.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 14, 2014 6:30 pm
Did anyone ever tried to give neighborhood schools money? I don't mean Lower Merion neighborhood. Evidently, money works for them. Maybe some money will do good for Philly neighborhood schools. We should at least try.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 12, 2014 7:00 pm
I know this is off topic, but how many of you elementary teachers are give recess for your children? We have not had recess due to "inclement weather" seems like since last October. Then they only give us 30 minutes for lunch. We shove down our lunch as do the kids, and then the kids get no down time to just be kids. And now that the weather is fine, it is PSSA time and they are still only giving us 30 minutes with no recess...there is no reason for it, except our aides don't want to do recess. They have 15 minutes between each lunch and have more free time than teachers!! Are other schools doing this? Thanks, we never get to talk to each other.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 12, 2014 8:08 pm
You need to bring this up with your building committee. At my school we have a 45 minute lunch no matter what the weather is like. The last contract states that elementary teachers are to have a 45 minute lunch so I don't know why this is not happening at your school.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 12, 2014 9:54 pm
Thanks. I plan to call the union.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 13, 2014 12:06 am
uhm no, is only 30minutes and if you are in an elementary school then there can be a 15 minute recess. I know in that for 18 years I had a 30 minute lunch as teacher in middle school and when I subbed it was still 30 minutes for high school as well. Though it would be nice to go back to the old days like when I was in elementary school in the SDP in the 1970s when I went home for lunch and came back an hour later for class [always got back in time to play with friends for recess though]. Linda K.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 13, 2014 1:46 am
I did say that it was for it sounds like you are saying that we should get 30 minutes PLUS 15 for recess. We are not getting the 15 minute recess time. And worse, the students are not either! I read the contract and it says the elementary teachers should get a 45 minute duty free lunch. I think our school has been pulling one over on us.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 13, 2014 2:44 am
Unfortunately, calling the PFT won' t get any results. Jordan let's breaches of CBA go on all the time because the PFT leaders do not execute grievances to take a stand. A grievance to the union is like a piece of toilet paper. The union pretends to file it then they think member forgot or wear them down with lame excuses and finally just wipe themselves with the grievance paper because the leaders in the PFT think of grievance as crap. All those so- called grievances of calling back out of seniority , etc. filed last summer went no where. Anyone hear anything almost ten months later? It reads about 30 days in contract to get a hearing yet union allows ten years if the district wants it. And members wonder why the PFT Is in the shape it is in now. Most teachers know you have to nip things in the bud or they fester. Jordan and many officials at PFT have not been in a classroom in decades so they don't know the real deal today.They think it's like when they taught in the 70's. A lot has changed in education since then. Charters weren't around either. Union officials should not make a career sitting in an union office for 30 plus all need to get out into the field again and see what we actually face daily .Out of the cushy 1816 Chestnut st. PFT headquarters and back to schools now and let other representatives with the know how take over as union leaders.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 12, 2014 7:07 pm
No, what needs to be done is, have a real school district who will stand up to parents when their kids are out of control, instead of placing all blame squarely on teachers and then say if we pay 'em less they'll work harder. The problems with this whole city is that the people who breed these children don't know how to socialize them and depend solely on the schools to get them out their hair, so now the teacher has to teach, teach social skills, deal with five to ten serious discipline issues who totally hamper the teaching and learning process, and then try to uplift the poor readers to profiency, all in a single bound, deal with neglected kids who have nothing and are needy, then finally solve all of society's problems as well. And those who hold us to that standard do so because they can, it's easy to go after the folks at the bottom of the hill because the dung rolls that way as long as there is gravity. It's all true. All the ballyhoo, boulder dash and bicker bicker on all sides does not solve the problem. If we have to deal with all those things, then dammit, fund it so it can be dealt with otherwise shut up! No one person on this earth can achieve those things on their own and the reason it's all failing is because the easiest thing to do is go after teachers with rigged PSSA requirements and NCLB, supremely designed to undermine public education and serve it on a silver platter to the elite and extremely wealthy to do what they please and that is the ultimate danger! Why do all the Supers in recent years, from the Broad Foundation, tell us not to suspend seriously disturbed kids, it's not because it's the humane thing to do, it's to further the process of failure in the schools, so the good ones get funneled to the charters. They're working every little angle they can. There are no patriots left in Philly. We all lie down and take it it seems. Jerry is not coming across as a fearless leader. Randy Weingarten isn't really pulling her weight, Obama could care less, Richard Trumpka is invisible. Seems like it's pretty much all over. I hear Washington state declared charters unconstitutional, maybe if I take a gigantic pay cut, I can stroll on over to the west coast.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 13, 2014 1:38 am
RIght on the money. Weingarten,Jordan, Trumpka ( AFL-CIO) just sitting on the sidelines as employers,backed by the filthy rich ,steamroll all over you and eventually members. The union heads don't back us up or have any strategy to fight back. Let them know we are aware of their inaction.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 12, 2014 9:58 pm
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 12, 2014 10:22 pm
NO KIDDING!!! Yet it never happens.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 12, 2014 9:16 pm
Who are they hiring? SDP teachers? TFAs?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 12, 2014 10:43 pm
Highly unlikely it will be SDP teachers...they are trying to eliminate us. I am sure it will be TFA or uncertified people.....or their family members.
Submitted by ConcernedRoxParent (not verified) on March 13, 2014 9:57 am
As a parent I wouldn't want my 14 year old with 24 year olds. That is just something bad waiting to happen!
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on March 13, 2014 11:20 am
Laura Shubilla is a doctoral student. This is her dissertation - "“To what extent can students be designers of their own learning? That’s the big idea we want to test,” Ms. Shubilla said." Has Shubilla ever taught or is she just another university researcher doing research on Philly students.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 13, 2014 1:37 pm
Laura Shabilla was the head of the Philadelphia Youth Network and then left the state for some other opportunity. When that didn't work out, she needed a job and her friends at 440 made one up for her and her friend at Building 21. To my knowledge there was no rfp or process for awarding this contract whatsoever.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on March 13, 2014 1:25 pm
I think we're still missing a lot of information (what/who is the source of the speculative costs?), and "naysayer" judgments are premature. We don't even know the communities these schools will be located in. The proposed changes are all positive. PYN has been doing a lot of good work for Philly for many years now. They are behind WorkReady that hires a lot of youth in the summer. Yes, this program requires actively recruiting community businesses. Probably more "connecting" than some of the most vocal critics here have done. If there's one thing that high school students have in common, no matter what their socioeconomic background or culture, it's an interest in work, and having an income. If learning can be directly linked to this, it is a good thing. And for all you "conspiracy theorists" out there, anything that will win students from charters will save union jobs - any objection to that? Naysayer comments without sufficient facts just show an uncritical, obstructionist viewpoint.

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