Rebuilding Philly: Inside an Experimental Public School

In 2014 the School Reform Commission in Philadelphia approved the creation of three small, non-selective high schools. They were designed to compete with charters; while they retain the status of a public school they aim to personalize learning. They stressing inquiry- and project-based learning over and an assessment-based curriculum.  One of these innovative schools is Building 21, developed by Laura Shubilla, former head of the Philadelphia Youth Network. Alongside Chip Linehan, the school was created as part of a doctoral program at the Harvard School of Education.

Building 21 is located inside what was formerly Joseph C. Ferguson Elementary School, a historic building rich in the culture of the neighborhood. When I arrived at the school they were conducting a fire drill and streams of bubbly, chatty teens poured out in half-hearted lines. Apparently, the principle had to demonstrate to the students that if they pulled the alarm this year their hands would be covered in distinctly colored ink that couldn’t be washed off. If the attempted to disturb a lesson, they would be caught. This was a warning specifically aimed at the students who, in past years, competed with the other school—the one that shares the building with them—for which school could pull the alarm the most times in one year.

To enter the school, I walked past security officers who carried handcuffs (four of them are on duty at all time) and metal detectors which students are obligated to pass through every morning to get to class. Building 21 is deliberately non-selective, which means that students are admitted by lottery.  But so far, from what I could gather, it does not exactly have a broad cross-section of students that the founders hoped for, one that includes those who qualify for a more traditional special-admission school but who might be attracted to this type of learning.

The population is 91% black and every student (district-wide, in fact) qualifies for free or reduced lunches.danieltraub4-1

At 28 percent, Philadelphia’s poverty rate is the highest among the nation’s 10 largest cities. Over 430,000 of its 1,547,600 citizens live below the federal poverty line. Many thousands more earn just barely enough to escape the technical definition of poverty, which is just $23,550 for a family of four. Nearly 200,000 survive on incomes that put them in the category of ‘deep poverty’, which is defined as less than half the federal poverty limit. Poverty affects much of the city, but some groups suffer from it more than others. Black and Latino Philadelphians are twice as likely to be poor as whites. Poverty is similarly high among people with disabilities at 40 percent and households headed by single mothers at 42 percent.
Most distressing of all, 39 percent of all children live in poverty. In North Philly that number increases to more than half the population. The median household income of the surrounding areas, Fairmount North/Brewerytown and North Philadelphia—East, are between $16,105 -$14, 185. A Philadelphia Department of Public Health assessment report in 2014 listed North Philadelphia as having the city’s poorest health indicators: high unemployment, child obesity, new HIV diagnoses, teen births, rat complaints, and firearm homicides. The report cited lower North Philadelphia for particularly high rates of single-parent households, early heart disease deaths, infant mortality, and homicides.


In these often traumatic conditions, success in an academics setting is extremely difficult if not impossible. And it’s for exactly this reason that the aims of Building 21 are so admirable. The school believes fundamentally that passion + agency = impact. The school endeavors to utilize the inherent curiosity of its students to help them each individually carve out a pathway to success.

To accomplish their goals the school had to basically re-engineer the concept of a school day. They combine remediation and acceleration in order to meet students where they are and offer very different experiences for both students and teachers. Their philosophy is one of “both student and teacher as engineer,” as maker, as creator of their own learning experience.


The teachers design their own classes (called ‘studios’) which less revolve around traditional subjects than they do around real-world industries such as journalism, environmental studies, and personal finance. Studios are spread across five learning cycles and provide students the opportunity apply skills and solve problems through projects-based learning. They blend together the competencies outlined by Common Core in a way that more reflects how those skills are actually applied to in the economy. The personalized pathways of the system allow for students to be exposed to many different ventures in hopes that each student comes to discover a life-long passion that keeps them engaged in school and on track for success in life.

Thomas Gaffey, who spent seven years as a math teacher at School of the Future, is Building 21’s chief instructional technologist. “The most powerful thing I’ve ever done for kids is authentic project-based learning,” said Gaffey. “Students need to be making meaning of their world, interacting and impacting the world in a meaningful way and not just doing things for the teacher for a grade.” His mission is to “try to find students’ passion and keep them engaged in school so we can work on the holes in their education.”

As I left the school I looked out among the forlorn housing of North Philly. Many had thick steel bars on their windows and some were abandoned, left vacant and boarded up. Others were painted in varying bright colors which, alongside their neighbors, made up an arresting spectrum. Walls of dispossessed businesses were often covered with grandiose murals or intricate graffiti art. And construction sites were seen in nearly every pocket.

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