Teaching Profession

PBS NewsHour Examines Innovation in Philly Schools

By Benjamin Herold — December 03, 2014 3 min read
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Efforts by the struggling Philadelphia school district to save itself by cultivating “innovative” school models were the focus of two public television segments produced by award-winning reporter John Merrow and aired on PBS’s popular NewsHour program this week.

As with Education Week’s multi-part “Innovation Gamble” series last school year, the focus is on Science Leadership Academy, a magnet high school that has gained national recognition for its work merging educational technology with hands-on, inquiry-driven learning.

Here’s the first NewsHour segment, which focuses on SLA, its popular and highly decorated principal, Christopher Lehmann, and the effort to replicate the school into a second campus:

Merrow ends the segment with a question: “Can the SLA model work in traditional neighborhood schools, ones that do not get to hand-pick their students? Superintendent [William] Hite is gambling that they can. “

As Education Week reported in March, Hite has sought to leverage the success of SLA and two other existing schools with similar models in order to create new, unconventional high schools and spur changes in the city’s neighborhood schools. So far, those efforts have met with mixed success, in large part because the school system’s crushing budget crisis has sucked much of the air out of the 128,000-student district.

In the second NewsHour segment, Merrow looks at one of those new schools, known as U School.

For me, one of the highlights was seeing the English class of teacher Samuel Reed, who had his students writing poems about themselves, and then creating video presentations of their work.

I know Reed from my time on the Philadelphia beat and from his work as a sometimes-blogger for the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, where I used to work.

Last year, Reed taught at Beeber Middle School, the struggling neighborhood middle school that is co-located in an 84-year old building with SLA’s new second campus. The difference between the two schools that share the building—one open to everyone, but with a strict discipline code and dreary facilities, and the other, which creams top students from around the city and gives them extensive freedom to roam the third floor, which has been spruced up thanks to philanthropic dollars—couldn’t have been more striking.

It was also powerful to see the U School’s first-year principal, Neil Geyette, whose career as a teacher in Philadelphia I chronicled on-and-off for several years.

Not so long ago, Geyette was a pariah in the Philadelphia district. He and his brand of community-oriented, project-based learning were cast out of historic West Philadelphia High School when they failed to generate rapid test score gains. In the place of Geyette and his Urban Leadership Academy went a back-to-basics school turnaround model featuring school uniforms, lots of scripted curricula, and a taskmaster principal.

Now, Geyette is one of Superintendent Hite’s best hopes for keeping the struggling district afloat. But the climb will be steep. Here’s how Merrow ended the segment:

“Superintendent Hite is giving his innovative schools five years to make a go of it, and he wants to open more every year. However, keeping up with charter schools will be a challenge. More than 40 organizations have applied to open new charter schools in Philadelphia next year.”

Photo: Students leave Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy at Beeber.--Jessica Kourkounis for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.