Scaling Up New School Designs Through 'A Culture of Sharing'

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Grace J. Cannon sees hidden pockets of possibility scattered across the financially troubled Philadelphia district.

Her job is to help bring them out in the open.

"People are dying to do exciting things, but they're not always given the chance," Ms. Cannon said.

As the executive director of the district's newly created Office of New School Models, Ms. Cannon at the moment has the primary task of supporting the design and launch of three unconventional new nonselective high schools. All will be "competency based," requiring students to demonstrate mastery and skills, rather than just put in seat time.

Faces of Change

Philadelphia educators experience hope, disappointment when pursuing hands-on, technology-rich school models. Hear what five of these educators had to say about their efforts.

Gianeen C. Powell
Principal, James G. Blaine Elementary School

Daniel E. Ueda
Teacher, Central High School

Lisa J. Nutter & Dana A. Jenkins
President, Philadelphia Academies Inc. & Principal, Roxborough High School

Grace J. Cannon
Executive director, Office of New School Models

Andrew A. Biros & Joshua D. Kleiman
Teachers, Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts

The schools will also combine project-based instruction with adaptive software, giving students both hands-on learning opportunities and personalized help to make up lost ground in reading and math.

The goal is to reimagine the city's neighborhood high schools—and to outcompete the city's charter schools by focusing on in-district innovation.

The early indicators are positive: Ms. Cannon said the three schools received 1,800 applications for 360 available seats.

The heads of the three new schools have gotten a boost from Science Leadership Academy and the Workshop School, two project-based high school programs that were expanded this year thanks to investments by outside philanthropists, as well as district Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. Leaders from the five schools meet monthly to swap ideas on such matters as professional development and curriculum design.

About This Series

"The Innovation Gamble" follows a city district resting its hopes on a tech-themed approach. This is the third of three parts.

Part One: Philadelphia Seeks Salvation in Lessons From Model School

Part Two: Innovative Ed. Model Challenges Teachers to Adjust

Part Three: Phila. Funding Crisis Threatens Spread of Innovation

Video: Watch Christopher Lehmann discuss the motivation for Science Leadership Academy's switch from Mac laptops to Chromebooks.

Video: Watch Karthik Subburam, a teacher at the Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, work to change how he teaches.

Multimedia: Replicating a Model School: The People Behind the Effort

"We want to sustain and support each other," Ms. Cannon said. "Being a new school that's trying to tackle a difficult problem inside a large bureaucracy is a fragile place to be."

To bolster support, Ms. Cannon has also taken to conducting "roadshows" inside the district's central office. She focuses on capturing the imaginations of the mid-level staffers who will be critical to figuring out new approaches to everything from school schedules to lunch.

For Christopher D. Lehmann, the founding principal of SLA, such efforts are reason to hope that the district is finally learning how to nurture innovation.

"There really is a culture of sharing that is taking root," Mr. Lehmann said. "The fact that it is happening in the middle of a doomsday budget is amazing."

Vol. 33, Issue 35, Page 19

Published in Print: June 11, 2014, as Scaling Up New School Designs Through 'A Culture of Sharing'
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