We Started a School!

In the days between Christmas 2012 and New Year’s 2013, Chris Lehmann declared, “We are starting a new campus.” A statement that did not surprise me as we had talked about it many times, but this declaration seemed more certain. I started poking around the statement with some questions, as I am known to do, when it became clear that he was 100% serious. One of my questions was, so we are shooting for a fall 2014 opening? To which he responded, no, we are opening in the fall, fall of 2013.  It was an ambitious plan and it would not have been possible without the immense support of the Science Leadership Academy community. The past 18 months have proven to be challenging, invigorating, exhausting and exciting. We will use this space to share the story of starting this second school and it all begins at the first school at the corner of 22nd and Arch in Center City Philadelphia.

Science Leadership Academy started in 2006 with a partnership between the School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute. SLA spent eight years honing its craft as a school that focuses on inquiry-driven, project based learning in a 1:1 laptop environment. This school warmly welcomed me to its ranks in 2008 and I could not have been more impressed with its overall commitment to living up to its own mission and vision.  As someone who had worked in several different schools over the years, I knew how rare this dynamic was to find and when Chris said, we need a 2nd campus, I was thrilled to be in a position to support the effort.

So between January 1st, 2013 and September 9th, 2014, we pulled the broader SLA community together on a new venture. We were selected for a new school start-up grant from the Philadelphia Schools Partnership and from that point on it was full steam ahead. However, this was not work for the feint of heart. Until July 1, no one was able to work on this project full-time. This school was willed into being by long nights after the teaching day was over, weekend after weekend and then hiring the right set of teachers to breathe life into this new learning environment. The efforts of Chris Lehmann and the new principal of SLA@Beeber, Chris Johnson, were extraordinary in the true sense of the word. After countless conversations with the Central Office, hiring a cohort of teachers in the middle of the largest teacher layoff in recent Philadelphia memory and literally carrying the furniture into the building ourselves, SLA@Beeber opened their doors to students on September 9th, 2014, beginning a whole new path for the teaching and learning model established at Science Leadership Academy.

The staff was nothing short of amazing. We asked them to take apart everything they had done as a teacher in past teaching positions and think differently about how they approached teaching and learning. We challenged them to establish a strong rapport with their new advisory that they would be traveling toward graduation with over the next four years and we had them start this school from scratch on the third floor of an historic school building in the Wynnfield neighborhood of West Philadelphia.

The curriculum and pedagogy were refined throughout the year as the teachers and the students adjusted their roles in the classroom. Teachers were learning to give the students more voice and choice, while the students were learning what to do with all that voice and choice. Amongst the tools in our toolbox for accomplishing this work was the Dell Chromebook 11, the result of a Powering the Possible grant from Dell Giving. In such a tough year for funding, the grant was a critical piece of funding that will continue supporting SLA@Beeber through 2016. The community support from the School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute alongside the efforts of the parents, students, teachers and friends of SLA and the financial support of the Philadelphia Schools Partnership and Dell Giving, yielded an exciting moment for us all, the point where we start something new in the hopes of creating another wonderful place for learning.

Through this blog – the staff and students of SLA@Beeber will be sharing their own stories and reflections on how they are building this space, sharing their learning stories and offering suggestions for continuing to hone a more modern approach to teaching and learning in this digital age. Last year was just the beginning; year two bring us another 125 students, and 10 new teachers to the fold. Welcome to the journey.

The Science Leadership Academies are progressive science and technology high schools in Philadelphia, PA. The Academies are inquiry-driven, project-based, 1:1 laptop schools and considered to be one of the pioneers of the School 2.0 movement nationally and internationally. The first Science Leadership Academy was recognized by Ladies Home Journal as one of the Ten Most Amazing Schools in the US, has been recognized as an Apple Distinguished School from 2009 through 2013 and has been written about in many publications including Edutopia Magazine, EdWeek and the Philadelphia Inquirer. In September 2013, we opened the Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber campus, the second campus in the SLA model.

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