I was fortunate to spend the end of January at EduCon, the education conference/conversation staged by the staff and students of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. It’s a unique educational experience that pushes educators and those who value education to think divergently and learn from one another.
One of the most interesting parts of this experience is the setting. SLA is a public magnet high school that represents a partnership between the Philadelphia School District and the Franklin Institute Science Museum. Students from all over Philadelphia apply each year (800 of them last year!) for 120 positions in the new ninth grade class. Their work is all project-based, and from the looks of things, remarkably student-centered. On my tour, I witnessed ridiculous levels of student engagement and mind-blowing creativity from the students in each class. Students were given the freedom to collaborate, and it was clear that learning revolved around them. It was intended to be impressive… and it certainly was.
A new friend pointed out to me after the tour that I work at “Wake Young Men’s Leadership Academy” and asked how similar the two schools are. I was struck with how obvious this question seemed to be, and yet how it had never occurred to me. My school is in a different category than SLA.
For starters, the Philly school accepts only the best and brightest whom apply. This is how magnet schools were originally intended to be. Students get a unique opportunity to learn in an accelerated environment after demonstrating that they have the necessary skills and maturity. They don’t have to worry about remediation or behavior support specialists because they are an elite public school.
WYMLA, on the other hand, is an application-only school whose students are chosen by a lottery. We are specifically mandated to fill half of our seats with students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We are required to match the racial and socioeconomic profile of our district. As a result, we have a significant population that requires specially-designed instruction and lacks basic skills in many areas.
We also have a motivation problem that SLA does not. Their students seem excited to be there and energized by the opportunities. They have a learning community atmosphere that is enhanced by their online activity. Fundraising programs, like EduCon, bring in the money needed to loan every student a MacBook each year. They make a strong case for the power of 1:1 education.
Meanwhile, as a new school, WYMLA has a wide array of technology, as well. We’re not quite 1:1, but close. Yet, our students seem to lack the maturity and self-control to work well in the independent learning environment that thrives at SLA. We spend inordinate amounts of time on classroom management and discipline. Why the big difference?
I won’t chalk it up to population because the SLA student body is racially and socioeconomically diverse. But, I do believe that the nature of their selection process and the standards that they are permitted to establish (for academics and student behavior) set them apart. It is exciting to know that places like Science Leadership Academy can exist, but I am glad to be where I am.
At my school, I have the satisfaction that I am providing enhanced instruction for those who are ready for it while still “making a difference” with the students who would not be able to succeed elsewhere. It’s a unique combination that leaves me appreciating my job more and more every day.
How does your school stack up against SLA?