Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia


I finally got to meet with a Principal of a US High School! Chris Lehmann, Principal of the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) gave me some of his precious time to debrief at the end of a wonderful 4 hour visit to his school.
I told him I wanted to try to summarise what I thought were the key driving principles for learning at his school.I told him they appeared to be:

  • student centredness
  • learn by doing (projects/makerspace)
  • subjects as lenses not as silos
  • community connection
He agreed, but quickly added an ethic of care. I immediately agreed with him because I had just been talking with some students and had asked them what they liked about being at this school and what misbehaviours occured. They loved the unfettered technology access, how it was "loose knit" but based  on trust and expectations of leadership. They said they were creating a community and felt safe in their school. The biggest misbehaviour they could identify was poor time management by some students and not always fully focused in class. They talked about how they monitored each other's  time management as they often worked in groups and needed each other to be onto it. When things went wrong people would spend time talking with the Principal who did not give up on them easily. In sharing this with Chris he was able to give examples of normal teenage misbehaviour that he had to deal with, but was deeply committed to the principles of restorative practice. In our discussions on this issue we shared our common disappointments with "powers that be" that were not proactive and vocal in support of principals who chose the restorative rather than punitive approach.

Just this morning, I tweeted my second plea to our MOE to stand strongly beside Principals who were subjected to media stories harrassing them because they did not suspend or exclude bullies. Defending such approaches in the face of parents and the wider community is a very lonely part of the job and requires constant courage. Our MOE needs to be more proactive and vocal and visible.


I was met at the start of the day by Jeremy Spry whom I assumed was a Deputy  Principal but he pointed out that because the demands they placed on teachers to deliver the PBL model were huge they used the resource designed to appoint administrators (DPs and APs) instead to appoint more teachers. The school of 500 had  a Principal and Co-Principal; everyone else was a teacher. It has been operating for 11 years and a few years ago opened another campus (Beeber) because of the demands they were facing for students to enrol. Enrolment is through an application and interview with a teacher and current student where the candidate brings and presents one of their  favourite projects which describe who they are and how they think.

Jeremy explained the concept of Essential Questions which acted as a focus for the projects at each grade level.

Jeremy explaining the Essential Questions
Each of the first three grade level has an Essential Question which is then broken down into 3 focussing questions. The Senior Grade's Essential Question of Creation does not have a set of questions, but has a set of core values to allow for more personalisation and differentiation.

In their Freshman Year there are 4 classes of 33 students. They all take 4 blocks a week of English, US History, Bio/Chemistry, Maths and Spanish. They do  2 blocks per week of 'non-elective' electives (Digi Tech, Art, Drama and Engineering). These are seen as the foundation subjects for being able to make quality presentations in multiple ways. Each is done for a semester with Digi Tech always taken in the first semester so that students are comfortable with all digital tools and platforms and the ethics involved in social media.

In their Sophomore Year they have a similar programme but World History and they do 1 "Elective" which is Health. They can also take Certificate Technology Education (CTE) courses which are state wide programmes and include engineering, film and photography. They have 2 lunch breaks because their space is limited (the first is at 10 35 and the second at 11 40). Some students choose to have no lunch break as the CTE courses run during the split lunch times. They can eat and snack throughout the day.

In their Junior Year their science changes to Physics and they can pick up PE (which is only offered at this Year level and you don't have to do as you can pick up your 2 sports credits by playing sport.)

In their Senior Year they must do English to meet College requirements but are free to choose anything else on offer.

An interesting elective many seniors choose is Student Assistant Teachers (SAT). They select a freshman class to attach themselves to and assist students, help them edit their work, take some lessons etc, etc. This was very cool annd I met some neat SATs.

Project Based Learning is the core of all programmes and they follow Wiggins' model of Understanding by Design. I saw the same range of cool project ideas that I have come across. I witnessed freshman students doing group presentations as a result of researching cool reactions and explaining in scientific terms how they worked (Elephant toothpaste!). I saw evidence of projects on the walls:

The whole school is involved in ILP (Individual Learning Programmes) on Wednesday afternoons. Because of a strong partnership with the Franklin Institute all Freshman and Sophomores spend the time there (not sure what they do) but Juniors and Seniors can organise their own placements/internships.

All students belong to a grade level Advisory and they meet twice a week for  40 minutes from 3 10 to 3 50 which is considered after school as on the 2 other days (Wednesday is ILP) they finish at 3 05. They focus  on similar things that other schools with an Advisory model do. They check on progress, grow relationships etc. They (students) speak strongly of it being like their family at school. There are just over 20 in each Advisory.

I had the pleasure of talking with senior student Ari several times throughout my visit. She told me "I am a senior enginneer", and she thought like an engineer when I cam across her in Chemistry working with three other student to find a solution to breaking down the acidity in a  lake which had been polluted. Their solution was to spread baking soda from a helicopter and to get people on jetskis to stir it up! Later on I came across her in Engineering. The classs' focus for the year was Assistive Technology and they had been working with community organisations to provide assistive technology. They were currently working on Fidget Spinners which they made and sold to raise funds to design an equivalent for a child without fine motor  skills.
Ari's Assistive Technology Fidget Spinner clamped to side of desk
The MakerSpace was a central place for many students and they make do with much less space than we expect. The teacher there had a clear process of attesting students to use as much of the equipment as possible (though some were "out-of-bounds".)
Small makerspace area which had a simiilar sized space to the left with work benches for electronics and other work and a space to the right (smaller) with a 3d printer and laser cutter. 



I loved my visit to this school. Grant Lichtman wrote very favourably about this school in #Edjourney which made me determined to visit. I was not disappointed.

What Have I Taken Away From This Visit?


  • I liked the "foundation subjects" of Digi Tech, Art, Drama and Engineering being taught in the first year so that students were supported to be able to make quality presentations in multiple ways to get away from the power point or poster routine
  • Student Assistant Teachers is a cool concept which I would like to explore.
  • I am becoming more interested in a whole year level being involved in an internship of some type at the same time
  • I think we need to find a way of aligning our timetable blocks in a more tuneful way (not quite sure why yet)
  • An agreed process of inquiry across the whole school seems like a great idea as it reinforces common language and practices (I know we do this well in Big and Impact Projects - not sure what we do within Modules or Hubs. Looking forward to finding out and seeing if we see it as important)
  • The ethic of  care was evident in the culture of the school. This must be maintained and strengthened.


Evidence of ethic of care
Cartoon depicting the core of SLA

Last night we had a wine and cheese with our AirBnB hosts. She is an ex teacher (describes herself as disobedient) and he is a professional musician and music teacher. They brought along 2 friends who are both lawyers with him being a lawyer for a school district in New Jersey. Great conversations were had!

One more day in Philadelphia then we catch a train to New York. It has been very thought-provoking to this point. I have only 1 school to visit there and am looking forward to a bit more relaxation time. I am immensely grateful to the SLT back at HPSS whose commitment to our school and qualty of their leadership have made it OK for me to be away for an extended period of time to renew, refresh and to be reinvigorated.





















1 comment:

Lisa Squire said...

Thanks for writing with so much depth - so many cool ideas being shared and great food for thought! I'm really loving the way these schools are generally putting their kids first and designing such strong interdisiplinary approaches to learning. We use the understanding by design methodology for our planning and I really value it, neat to hear it's being utilisied too in some of these places you are visiting. Thanks for the blog post!