This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Imagine a school where classes are organized not by subject but by project …
A school created not by administrators but by teachers fed up with the status quo …
A school where kids from a city’s toughest neighborhoods are given the opportunity to experiment and the freedom to fail.
In West Philadelphia, that school is a reality. It’s called the Workshop School.
The idea started with an innovative project for a few dozen kids at one of Philadelphia’s most troubled high schools, West Philly High. The project: building hybrid cars.
In 2010, students there entered an international hybrid-building competition and survived the first round. The West Philly effort rivaled adult projects backed by major corporations and universities. That’s when they got the attention of President Obama:
"They didn’t have a lot of money," Obama said of the West Philly High team. "They didn’t have the best equipment. They certainly didn’t have every advantage in life. But what they had was a program that challenged them to solve problems, work together, to learn and build and create. That’s the kind of spirit and ingenuity that we have to foster."
The Workshop School embodies several big trends in education that the Obama administration has supported, including a renewed focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and career technical education.
With the program’s success, its founding teachers were able to raise private money and convince the cash-strapped School District of Philadelphia to let them think bigger. The result: The Workshop School.
This year was the school’s first as a full-fledged public high school. Ninety students attended, a number that will grow to 160 kids next year.
Haziz Self just graduated from the Workshop School and says he loves the fact that the learning there is project-based.
"Once you start something," Self says, "you’ve got to finish it. That’s a life lesson: Once you start something, you got to finish it."
Project-based learning is characterized as "inquiry-based," meaning that students start by generating their own questions. They then research and try to solve real-world problems and, either solo or in groups, present an outcome of some kind to an external audience. Projects tend to be interdisciplinary.
In research dating back to the 1990s, this approach has been shown to improve student attitudes and performance, especially in math.
But most public schools don’t have the resources or ability to overhaul their schedules and apply a fully project-based curriculum the way the Workshop School has.