This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Nearly a year after Superintendent William Hite committed millions of dollars to expand Science Leadership Academy and two other pioneering District schools here, the investment in hands-on, technology-rich instructional models has stirred hope and experimentation across the city.
But the tentative flourishing of innovation is at risk of being overwhelmed by a massive funding shortfall that has cast doubt on the superintendent’s ability to safely open schools in September, let alone spread promising new models across the 131,000-student system.
"It’s frustrating as hell," Mr. Hite said in an interview last month. "We’re trying to show that we know what works, and here we are a year later, still begging for the status quo."
Fueled by strong parent demand, SLA’s new second campus is poised to double in size, to 250 students. Final preparations are also underway to bring three unconventional new high schools on line, and small bands of educators are soaking up the new ideas and bringing them back to their neighborhood schools.
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
The positive momentum, however, has not persuaded state lawmakers or the city teachers’ union to heed Mr. Hite’s pleas for hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. In late May, at the superintendent’s urging, the governing School Reform Commission refused to endorse a budget that called for steep class-size hikes and a fresh round of cuts. The city schools are again bracing for severe shortages of everything from paper to nurses—a sensitive issue after the recent death of a boy who had fallen ill at a school without a full-time nurse on duty.
To many observers, Philadelphia’s plight offers yet more evidence that large urban districts are incapable of bringing innovative educational models to scale. Even when the money is there, those observers say, a thicket of problems—labor strife, dysfunctional bureaucracies, crazy politics, leadership churn—prevents sustained investments in the instructional expertise of teachers and principals.
Mr. Hite is playing his cards as well as could be hoped for, said Steven Fink, the executive director of the Center for Educational Leadership at the University of Washington, in Seattle.
But a poor hand is still a poor hand, Mr. Fink said.
A faithful replica
Inside SLA@Beeber, as the new Science Leadership Academy campus is known, small scenes tell the story of the 21st-century education on which Mr. Hite has gambled.
On a beautiful May afternoon, Caleb Hughes and a group of fellow 9th graders linger at the school after hours, playing soccer in the hallway and finishing a video-editing project for physics class.
"His personality is really coming out, and he’s really learning to take ownership for his grades," said Renee Hughes, Caleb’s mother.
Ms. Hughes’ eldest son attended SLA’s decorated flagship campus. She described SLA@Beeber as true to the original: intimate and demanding, with caring teachers who push students to work together and juggle multiple deadlines.
Seats in the incoming class at SLA@Beeber—like the original, highly selective—filled up quickly. So did eight new staff positions. Despite a hectic school year, six of seven current teachers—all but Karthik Subburam, whose difficult transition to project-based teaching was chronicled by Education Week in March—will return.
"The beautiful thing is that what they fell back on when things got tough—collaborating with people, sharing successes and failures, reflecting all the time—is the same process we ask our kids to work through," said Christopher D. Lehmann, SLA’s founding principal.
For a district desperate for something to build on, the successful replication of SLA has been "gigantic," Mr. Hite said.
But such enthusiasm is quickly muted. Many Philadelphia educators say the district’s budget woes have sucked the life from creative, hands-on instructional practices already in place. While the superintendent talks about giving educators the freedom to innovate, many city principals and teachers feel abandoned, rather than empowered.
Take Marilyn Quarterman, the principal of Ellwood Elementary, a K-5 school.
In early May, she joined roughly 100 people at a roundtable discussion on new school models, hosted by the School Reform Commission, the District’s governing body. She came hoping to gather information that might help prepare students for the city’s new high schools.
Her curiosity quickly turned to frustration. While Mr. Hite has directed attention and resources to innovation, Ms. Quarterman said, Ellwood Elementary has been forced to limp along without a functioning library and with only a one-day-per-week nurse and a half-time counselor. Its playground surface has grown dangerous from disrepair, she said, and one of her best teachers is leaving.
"My expectation is that [innovation] sounds good now and will probably do well for a while, and then it will go away, as everything else does in Philadelphia," said Ms. Quarterman, a 27-year veteran.
In responding to such sentiments, Mr. Hite is in turn energized about breaking "the cycle of disbelief" surrounding the district, defensive about the decisions he has made, and angry that he has been forced to make such impossible choices in the first place.
The unfortunate reality, said Mr. Fink of the University of Washington, is that’s how it goes in most big-city districts that try to bring innovation to scale.
"Making deep instructional shifts can’t be done on the cheap," he said. "I don’t see the social and political will to do this, and it’s a shame, because kids are getting screwed."
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.
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.
This story originally appeared at Education Week.