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SRC approves creation of three small, innovative high schools

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The School Reform Commission approved the creation of three small, non-selective high schools Thursday that are meant to personalize learning while stressing inquiry- and project-based learning.

The schools, which are still being designed, will abandon the model of consecutive, subject-based periods for a school day to make more effective use of technology, off-campus internships, and community integration. They are meant to reinvigorate the concept of neighborhood schools, said Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn.

The schools, all to be located in North Philadelphia, will also stress youth development, said Kihn and people involved in their design.

Two of the schools, called the U School and Project LINC (for Learning In New Contexts) are being developed with a $3 million planning grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which is interested in creating new school models for underserved children.

The third, called Building 21, is being developed by Laura Shubilla, former head of the Philadelphia Youth Network, who is working on this with colleague Chip Linehan as part of a doctoral program at the Harvard School of Education. Building 21 is being developed with a $100,000 planning grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges and a $50,000 grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership.

The U School and Building 21 will be co-located in the vacated Ferguson Elementary building at Seventh and Norris Streets, near Temple University. Project LINC will share the Roberto Clemente Middle School building near North Front Street and Erie Avenue.

Officials said they would cost between $2.5 million and $3 million, but it is unclear whether that is over and above the amount needed to educate the students in existing schools.

All three schools will start with 115 students in 9th grade in September and gradually add grades.

"These are small, highly personalized high schools," said Grace Cannon, who heads the District’s Office for New School Development.

"They are not small for small’s sake, but they can embed deep youth development and use technology to enable personalization and mastery."

The two schools devised through the Carnegie grants are meant to completely "re-engineer" the school day, Cannon said, combining remediation and acceleration in order to "meet students where they are." These new schools will also offer very different experiences for teachers.

While at Philadelphia Youth Network, Shubilla worked with students who were near-dropouts — overage and undercredited. She hopes that Building 21 will appeal to a cross-section of students. It will have interdisciplinary classes and outside internships for which students can get credit, she said.

The goal is to "customize learning for children, regardless of where they’re coming into the system," she said.

Linehan said that each student at Building 21 will also have a computing device.

"We are focused on technology as a means or tool to think about organizing learning in a different way," he said. "That will allow us to push students outside the building into authentic learning environments."

Blended learning, which combines more traditional classroom teaching with learning on computers, will not be treated as "an end of itself, but as a means to a richer educational experience."

The schools will have "no admission criteria — not behavior, attendance. … There will be a one-page application," said Cannon. If there is more interest than space, students will be chosen by lottery. Neighborhood students will get preference, but the schools will be open to students from all over the city.

Creating these models is one way of providing more neighborhood school choices that are innovative without being charter schools. Neighborhood schools are generally regarded as choices of last resort for students who cannot get into selective admission schools or charters.

This is to "expand choice [for] a group of young people who haven’t been afforded that opportunity," she said.

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