The Philadelphia School District: It’s not all bad news all the time.
Some successes, in fact, are so great that educators from across the nation are willing to book a flight to PHL just to take a peek underneath the proverbial hood.
Take the district-run Science Leadership Academy as a case in point.
Through its partnership with The Franklin Institute, SLA has developed a inquiry-based, project-driven learning environment that’s earned high praise from educators across the country.
President Obama himself has acknowledged the school’s accolades. When he spoke at SLA’s high school graduation in 2012, he predicted that “somebody in this room … will invent some entire new industry that we don’t even know about yet.”
Based on the school’s stellar reputation, Dell Inc. announced Thursday that it would award a three-year $620,000 grant to SLA, naming it a “Center for Excellence in Learning.” The designation affects both of SLA’s selective admission high schools – its original center city campus and its newly created Beeber campus in West Philadelphia.
Chris Lehmann, founding principal of SLA, said the grant will make the schools somewhat like a “teaching hospital” – where educators in districts far and wide can learn from SLA’s accumulation of best practices.
“The idea is that anyone should be able to come to the school, see what we do, ask the hard questions of ‘how it happens’ and learn from what is happening here,” said Lehmann. “Not so they can go back and do exactly what we do, but to take the lessons that we have learned, and make them their own.”
The grant also will provide ninth-graders at both SLA campuses with new Google Chromebooks.
Dr. Frederic Bertley, senior vice president of the Franklin Institute, stressed the magnitude of the accomplishment, especially given that draconian budget cuts have severely reduced services and staff at district schools.
“This is a public school working on a shoestring budget,” Bertley said. “And in eight years we managed to transform the educational landscape so that people like Google, people like Dell and a whole bunch of other folks are looking at our model and fighting to support it because they see a visionary pathway to helping all kids.”
Superintendent William Hite, speaking to the crowd of faculty, students and reporters gathered in SLA’s library, emphasized the good nature of this news.
“We’ve been talking a lot about funding and the absence of funding, but what’s lost in that conversation is what we do with the funds we have, and what we do with additional funds when those funds become available,” said Hite. “Notice I said when and not if.”
Private philanthropy as ‘new normal’?
Private philanthropy is no stranger to SLA.
In recent years, about 12 percent of the school’s annual budget has come from fundraising resources above and beyond what the district has been able to provide – a financial boon district schools lacking SLA’s stellar reputation could never expect.
“It occasionally feels like the sword of Damocles over your head,” said Lehmann. “It’s great that we can do it, and we are amazingly lucky that we’ve been as successful as we have, but I worry greatly that it is not a sustainable way to run a school.”
(SLA’s Beeber campus was funded in part through a donation by the Philadelphia School Partnership.)
The laptop grant is great, Lehmann says, but “sadly [it] just frees up the time to fundraise for other needs.”
Despite some fundraising successes, SLA’s kids haven’t been completely sheltered from the fallout of budget cuts. In recent years, the school has lost teachers, support aides, and after-school activities.
“I grew up as the son of a teacher and I remember my mother having the poster in her classroom that said, you know, ‘It’ll be a great day when schools have all the money they need, and we have to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber,'” Lehmann said. “I still think that’s true today.”