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District to open 3 innovative neighborhood high schools

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

Three new high schools will open in the fall in North Philadelphia.

All are planning to use an approach to learning that is based on projects and inquiry, building on students’ experiences and extending education outside the classroom. They will operate on a “competency” model, in which students progress at their own pace, moving ahead when they demonstrate mastery of knowledge and skills.

The schools will not have admission requirements. Students can apply until April 25. Half the seats will be for students from the 11 zip codes surrounding each school and the rest will be open citywide.

“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.”

A school called Project 21 is being co-designed by Laura Shubilla, former head of the Philadelphia Youth Network. The school will open with 150 9th graders and expand to 600.

The goal is to “customize learning for students, regardless of where they’re coming into the system,” Shubilla said. It will serve students from ages 14 to 24 who will exit after three to five years ready to step into a career or attend college without needing remediation.

The two other schools, LINC (Learning in New Contexts) and the U School, are being planned with a $3 million, three-year grant from the Carnegie Foundation. Each will open with 100-115 students and add a grade each year.

Saliyah Cruz, the former West Philadelphia High School principal, who had been working in Delaware, is designing the LINC, which will share a building with Roberto Clemente Middle School in Hunting Park.

She came back because it is “exciting” that the District “is looking at … creating good opportunities for kids not able to access magnets or citywide admission schools.”

The U School is being designed by Neil Geyette, who developed the project-based Urban Leadership Academy at West when Cruz was principal. He subsequently taught and was a principal intern at Franklin Learning Center.

As they design the schools, the leaders have been consulting students “to see what they want in a school,” Geyette said.

The U School will co-locate with Project 21 in the former Ferguson Elementary School near Temple University.

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