This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Update | Friday, noon
The School District has approved three elementary schools and one middle school for redesign overhauls that could significantly change how students experience education.
All the plans, in one way or another, appear to involve more intensive use of technology and a shift to inquiry- and project-based learning.
The schools are:
• Chester A. Arthur Elementary in South Philadelphia, which wants to model its program after the inquiry-based approach used at the nationally recognized Science Leadership Academy. The school team has been consulting with SLA principal Chris Lehmann.
• Laura H. Carnell Elementary in Lawncrest, which proposed "creating a project-based learning environment for all students."
• J.S. Jenks Academy for the Arts and Sciences in Chestnut Hill, with a plan to enhance teacher collaboration, use resources better, employ a "shared-classroom model," and create a summer session combining more online learning opportunities with hands-on activities and excursions.
• Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia, which has a plan for blended learning — a combination of online and classroom-based instruction — that can better personalize learning.
In all cases, the redesign initiatives that were given the go-ahead were submitted by the existing principal and teachers in the school. When the initiative was announced, there was some concern that outsiders could offer proposals and take over the school’s staff and leadership.
“These schools showed innovative visions for teaching and learning, led by dedicated educators and community partners,” said Superintentendent William Hite in a statement. “The School Redesign Initiative allows us to maximize the District’s existing talent and passion. We are excited about the potential of these redesign plans.”
Each school redesign team will get $30,000 for planning and work on refining the plans between now and March. Implementation will begin next school year.
When the project was announced, District officials said they were prepared to approve up to 10 projects. Spokeswoman Raven Hill said that these were the best of 16 proposals that were received.
The initiative is being underwritten by a $300,000 grant from the Barra Foundation.
"We definitely saw this as an opportunity," said Mary Lynskey, principal of J.S. Jenks, a 500-student K-8 school. "We were headed in this direction anyway."
Lynskey said the premise of the redesign is "to remove walls and bells, to really engage the kids in what we believe to be new and exciting ways, and introduce them to anywhere, anytime learning. We want them to not just see learning as what happens in the classroom between 8:30 a.m. and 3:09 p.m."
She is hoping that among other things, students will be able to use Skype to "do problem-solving with students around the world." Jenks is already using Edmodo, a social networking site where teachers, students, and parents can collaborate on assignments.
But they also plan on more excursions around the city, including to the Franklin Institute.
"Aside from the money, this gives us the freedom to explore educational solutions that may not have been the norm or traditionally embraced in the past," Lynskey said.
Already, the school got a name change, to the Jenks Academy for the Arts and Sciences. Among its partners are the Franklin Institute, PECO, and nearby Chestnut Hill College. There, students will have the opportunity to learn about such subjects as forensics, physics, and chemistry, she said.
Lynskey said that spreading learning into the summer is important, because research shows that many students, especiallly those who come from low-income families, lose skills during those months.
The school has embraced the "bring your own device," or BYOD policy, in which students are encouraged to bring to school their own technology, like smartphones and tablets, which are then put to use for learning.
"We decided we spent too much time telling kids what not to do," said Lynskey. Plus, she added, "Technology is expensive, budgets are tight, and if kids are coming to school with technology, it is best to use it."
Kim Newman, principal of Arthur, said that her school "is excited to be able to bring inquiry- and problem-based learning to a neighborhood K-8 school. We always focused on student engagement, but we want to take it further, to student empowerment."
Among other initiatives, the school is already working with the Fairmount Water Works on a hands-on, problem-solving, urban watershed curriculum for 6th, 7th and 8th graders.
"We really did a shared mission and vision," said Newman. "We spoke to parents, future parents, students, and teachers, and it’s important to everyone to have real world applications in activities during the school day."
Update: No applications that came from teams outside the schools – community organizations, universities, charter organizations – made it to the final round, “either because they did not have the connection to the community that would allow for successful implementation or the proposal was not strong enough,” spokeswoman Hill wrote in an email.
Final proposals are due in March, and schools may get more money to help with implementation depending on their final plans “and the availability of funds,” according to Hill. The $30,000 is for visiting other schools and hiring outside consultants for teacher professional development, planning time, and other support.
Hill said that there will not be any more grants this year, but that another round of applications “is planned” for next spring for redesigns that would begin in 2016-17. Schools that were not selected may reapply, and the Office of School Improvement and Innovation is sending feedback to teams that have requested it.
The Aug, 21, 2014, resolution authorized accepting up to $555,000 from Barra between August 2014 and September 2015, but the total grant for this round is $300,000, Hill said. That money will be distributed among the four schools, but total amounts for each will depend on their final plans.
“The exact amount for each school will be determined once we have had the chance to more fully outline their design year needs and process," Hill said in an email. "These conversations will begin with the selected teams next week. We are working closely with the foundation to ensure that the money is best used to ensure a successful design process for each team.”
Money for a new round for the 2016-17 school year would come from a new grant, Hill said. End of update