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Philadelphia schools aim to innovate to escape crisis

December 1, 2014 at 6:35 PM EDT
Philadelphia public schools are facing serious funding troubles, as well as overcrowding and other issues. But the city’s competitive Science Leadership Academy, where the curriculum is based on student-driven project learning, is a great success. Special correspondent for education John Merrow reports on a superintendent’s effort to use the SLA as a model for reforming traditional schools.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As we have been reporting, it’s been a very rough go for the Philadelphia public schools this year, for its students, teachers and parents, and even further back.

Now the school superintendent is taking new steps and trying experiments with expanding charter schools to fight back.

The “NewsHour” special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has the first of two reports this week.

JOHN MERROW: Philadelphia public schools are in trouble. Not enough money. Overflowing classrooms. And the unkindest cut of all, more than one-third of its students, 70,000, are in charter schools, which Philadelphia has to pay for, but doesn’t control.

WILLIAM HITE, Superintendent, The School District of Philadelphia: Individuals are choosing away from us, simply because they don’t think that our schools are meeting the needs of our children.

JOHN MERROW: William Hite is superintendent of Philadelphia’s public schools.

WILLIAM HITE: So what we want to do is to become a part of that choice. Our survival depends on our ability to innovate, to think differently about how children are educated.

MAN: You noticed there’s mirrors. Mirrors are, like, fascinating to kids. They, like, look at them and they’re like, who is that kid? What brain development stuff is going on with those kinds of things now?

JOHN MERROW: This is the kind of innovative model superintendent Hite is talking about. These 12th graders at Science Leadership Academy are learning about brain development by designing toys for babies and infants.

WOMAN: Aaron, what do you think? Do you want to do like little infant or do you want to do like 4- to 5-year-olds?

STUDENT: I want to do toddlers 1 to 3.

MAN: You will need to research what’s going on and then think of what you could build, design that would help develop those parts of the brain that are developing during eight to 12 months.

JOHN MERROW: Some teachers might have given a lecture on brain development, but that’s not how things work at Science Leadership Academy. Here, kids learn by finding their own answers and working collaboratively on real-life projects.

TRINITY MIDDLEBROOKS: What they really care about is how you got to your answer, not what the answer is itself.

MARCIE HULL, Technology teacher: Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going over the three different acceptable use policies. You are going to answer the questions that are on the canvas.

I have had kids cry in front of me, like, I just — can you just tell me, Ms. Hull? I just — I want to do a good job. And I said, I know you want to do a good job, and I’m going to help you do that, but you have to find your own answers now.

STUDENT: They have to learn how to like pick that up and, like, I guess, put their hand in it and grab it.

JOHN MERROW: This innovative approach, project-based learning, is at the core of everything that goes on at Science Leadership Academy, also known as SLA.

TIM BEST, Science teacher: Project-based learning, I would say, takes longer. But I would argue that it is well worth it. This is a much more interesting way, I would say, to — for them to learn this content, by kind of figuring it out on their own.

JOHN MERROW: More interesting, and, according to Chris Lehmann, SLA’s founding principal, much more rewarding.

CHRIS LEHMANN, Principal, Science Leadership Academy: When you get away from the front of the room, right, you actually end up being able to spend more time with the kids, not less. And we need to create those spaces. We need to make sure that — that there are teachers who can connect with the kids, who can mentor the kids, who can be that role model for them in their lives in incredibly powerful ways.

JOHN MERROW: SLA has 500 students grade nine through twelve. Lehmann founded the school in 2006, in partnership with the Franklin Institute, a museum of science and technology.

An expert on education technology, Lehmann has been honored with numerous awards, including the prestigious McGraw Prize, which he received in October.

CHRIS LEHMANN: It is our belief at SLA that schools should be cathedrals, that schools should be places of incredible passion and not just what happens in the hallways in between classes, but actually places where kids can’t wait to be.

JOHN MERROW: But Lehmann and his cathedral of learning have one great advantage over most Philadelphia schools. SLA accepts only those who meet its admission standards.

CHRIS LEHMANN: We will interview any kid who gives us a call or shows up at open house, or sends an — sends us an e-mail.

JOHN MERROW: This year, SLA interviewed 1,200 students for 125 freshman class slots. And high test scores alone were no guarantee of admission.

CHRIS LEHMANN: It’s those kids who want to love learning. I think that they flourish here.

JOHN MERROW: The numbers bear that out. The city’s graduation rate is 65 percent. SLA’s is 97 percent, and almost every graduate takes the next step, post-secondary education.

MEENOO RAMI, English teacher: Malala wins the Nobel Peace Prize. What does this do for the issue of girls trying to get an education?

JOHN MERROW: But numbers don’t tell the whole story.

MEENOO RAMI: I think there’s a palpable feeling of care in this building amongst teachers, amongst students, from students to teachers and from teachers to students, that I think makes kids feel like they belong here, they’re valued here.

JOHN MERROW: Because Science Leadership Academy has performed so well, superintendent Hite asked Lehmann to open a second school. Like the original, it selects its students. And, as at SLA, teachers push students to find their own answers.

MARY BETH HERTZ, Art teacher: It’s your project. You’re the one that is going to have to be working on it, so I want it be something that interests you.

STUDENT: You don’t think about rainbows.

STUDENT: I would say, like, if you drew rainbow with the cross, it could stand for, like, oh, I support — like, I think, like — I feel like…

STUDENT: Right. And then I could put, like, the LGBT, like, in the middle of something. I have an idea.

JOHN MERROW: The two SLA schools enroll only 830 students. Philadelphia’s traditional public schools serve 130,000. The vast majority of them attend neighborhood schools, which, by law, must admit everyone who shows up. Can the SLA model work in traditional neighborhood schools, ones that do not get to hand-pick their students? Superintendent Hite is gambling that they can.

We will report on that tomorrow night.