Transformation Grant Fuels Overhaul of School's Instruction

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Gianeen C. Powell gets goosebumps talking about the opportunity before her.

Last August, James G. Blaine Elementary, a small district-managed school in a blighted section of North Philadelphia, received a $1.5 million grant to reimagine its instructional model. Ms. Powell, a 16-year district veteran and the school's principal since 2008, also won considerable freedom to reshape her staff, overhaul Blaine's school day, and more.

"It feels like everything I want to happen, can happen," she said.

Among the first places Ms. Powell turned for guidance was Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy.

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

Christopher D. Lehmann, SLA's founder, advised her on hiring teachers who share a common vision and want to work collaboratively. SLA educators shared insights on maintaining technology and structuring professional development. Most importantly, Ms. Powell said, she was able to see for herself what project-based, inquiry-driven, technology-rich instruction looks like in the classroom—and then imagine how she might bring it to her school.

It's a big change from Blaine's days as an "empowerment school." Under then-Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, Ms. Powell said, she was required to make her teachers use highly scripted curricula and whole-class direct instruction focused on remediation of basic skills. Science and social studies were squeezed out of the school day, she recalled, and teachers and students alike were miserable.

The new plan calls for hands-on science projects, independent student work on software programs, and collaborative planning time for the staff. Grant money is paying for consultants, computers, facilities and technology upgrades, and professional development.

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

All of Blaine's teachers were forced to reapply for their jobs, and only half could be rehired. Some teachers are unhappy, but Ms. Powell said the move has allowed her to tap into a deep well of pent-up energy among Philadelphia educators who are eager to help build new types of schools.

For Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., the hopeful energy at Blaine is validation that his controversial gamble on district-led innovation is yielding dividends.

"We have to get away from this belief that change can only occur if we give schools to charter management organizations," he said. "We would love for this to happen at every school."

Vol. 33, Issue 35, Pages 16, 18-19

Published in Print: June 11, 2014, as Transformation Grant Fuels Overhaul of School's Instruction
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