Friday, May 30, 2008

Science Leadership Academy – Lessons Learned

I had the opportunity to join my colleagues for a visit to Chris Lehman’s much lauded (recently to me by Will Richardson and Jason Levy) Science Leadership Academy (SLA). Some of the best professional development I have engaged in is visits to schools that have the kind of reputation and stand for what I believe in. Then I watch, discuss, write, read about, implement, and share the best of what I discover.

Chris Lehman, SLA's founding principal, has distinct views about what he believes schools should be doing for their students as he shared with us and in an Edutopia interview. "When I hear people say it's our job to create the twenty-first-century workforce, it scares the hell out of me. Our job is to create twenty-first-century citizens. We need workers, yes, but we also need scholars, activists, parents -- compassionate, engaged people. We're not reinventing schools to create a new version of a trade school. We're reinventing schools to help kids be adaptable in a world that is changing at a blinding rate."

I knew pretty quickly that I was in for a visit where I was going to be discovering and learning a lot of useful knowledge. My expectations were met. There were many great systems, structures, and philosophies implemented at the school which I’m sure are what lead to its popularity and has resulted in attracting hundreds of visitors each year. Here is some insight into what I learned.
We’re educating humans not animals
When parents ask if SLA will prepare their children to do as well on standardized test as some other schools Mr. Lehman explains that the school is not about test scores. Instead he explains this is a place where students are not judged simply by test scores, but rather it is a place where they consider the students' head, heart, and hands. This was evident during my visit. Something I noticed early was there were no disturbing, ear piercing bells or announcements. When I asked Mr. Lehman to speak about this, he said it was because they were educating humans, not animals being trained to respond to a bell. Instead the students and staff react to the work they are doing, peers, and educators. Periods are 65 minutes each with five minutes for passing which allows for more natural conclusions of class, less frenetic and crowded halls (since not everyone is passing within three minutes) and a more human, less assembly-line feeling, environment. Instead of rushing to your next class at the sound of the bell, it’s more like heading off to your next appointment. Additionally, unlike many other schools classes don't start or end at 42 or 17.5 seconds past the hour. They start and end at times that appointments occur in the real world on the 0's and 5's. 
School-wide, weekly professional development and planning
Every Wednesday from 1:30 – 3:30 the entire staff does the work of professional development and planning based on school needs. The content of these sessions is set by principal with input from the staff. Mr. Lehman believes that he has the experts on hand with his school-based staff to provide for most professional development needs and at times brings educational leaders who influence their work to meet additional needs.
A school without students? How do they learn?
While SLA usually has students, every Wednesday after lunch his entire student body leaves. This is how Mr. Lehman is able to have two-hours every Wednesday for his staff to engage in planning and professional development. This is where some of the students' most meaningful learning occurs.
Where do they go??? Ninth graders go to their learning partner, the Franklin Institute and the rest of their student body attends the institution designated in their Individualized Learning Plans (ILP). As explained on their website three essential questions form the basis of instruction at SLA: How de we learn? What can we create? What does it mean to lead? A student's ILP gives them the opportunity to answer these questions in a new environment. The mission of the Independent Learning Plan Program is prepare students to enter adulthood by giving them the opportunity to develop and answer questions about their career goals, gain real experience working with adult mentors in the working world and expand the classroom into the city of Philadelphia. Students have advisers who oversee their ILPs.

When I asked Mr. Lehman more about the ILPs he said ILPs have allowed the students to discover interests they never knew they had or realize interests they thought they had, but really weren’t what they thought they would be. In some cases these experiences have even resulted in part-time employment. Students have the opportunity to change assignments each semester but most stay with their plan the duration of the school year. They find ILP partners in a variety of ways. One way students have the opportunity to explore and connect with these potential ILP partners is they are invited to the school in a fair type setting so students can explore their options and partners get to know students. Students display their work and accomplishments at the end of the year.

Professional Development and Planning Outside the School Day
Outside of the weekly 1:30 – 3:30 professional development and planning that staff is engaged in, there are a variety of additional opportunities, many of which occur virtually including weekly Monday evening online planning sessions/discussions in which most teachers eagerly participate. In fact as Mr. Lehman explained to us, much of the school was planned virtually months before it opened. As Edutopia reported, before the school even opened teachers and other stakeholders articulated a vision, planned curriculum, designed assessment rubrics, debated discipline policies, and even hammered out daily schedules using the sort of networking tools -- messaging, file swapping, idea sharing, and blogging -- kids love on sites such as MySpace.
Mr. Lehman also encourages his teachers to attend conferences, but with an expectation that they will present at any conference they believe is worth attending. Perhaps the most interesting professional development opportunity for teachers is the SLA hosted EduCon 2.0 described on their wiki as both a conversation and a conference. And it is not a technology conference. It is an education conference. It is a School 2.0 conference. It is an innovation conference where educators come together, both in person and virtually, to discuss the future of schools. Every session is an opportunity to discuss and debate ideas -- from the very practical to the big dreams.
The conference features expert presenters from outside SLA as well as those within the school community. Perhaps most impressive and unique are the featured student presenters like Arthus who is a 14-year-old student who is also a leader in technology and educational implementation. Through his blog, Newly Ancient, Arthus shares his thoughts upon how to change the educational model and integrate technology with pedagogy and philosophy. As a 14-year-old, he offers a unique perspective upon the issues we face in education today. Arthus is an outspoken proponent of giving students a voice in the direction of their learning and believes everybody is both a teacher and a student.
For a peak into other conference presenters click here. To find out about next year’s conference click here.
Recruiting Teachers
A small insight into Mr. Lehman's efforts to recruit teachers is called for here. Those who've worked in education may be wondering at this point how SLA has a staff that is committed to working to plan a school before it even opens, having weekly Monday evening conversations, and are folks motivated to travel the world speaking at conferences. Mr. Lehman has recruited teachers in a variety of ways, but a rather unusual method at this point in history is through his blog. Mr. Lehman wrote of his intentions in his blog and as a result many educators passionate about his vision asked to join him. He has readers from around the world and a large number of his staff was recruited from outside of Philly. One of his favorite interview questions: who are the educational leaders that most impact who you are as a leader, teacher, and learner?

In the Classroom
When touring around the classrooms and speaking with students and teachers I discovered a lot of great and different practices being implemented.

The first thing I noticed was the tone of the school. Despite the physical environment (a bit factory-ish) the tone of the school was anything but that familiar cold factory feel prevalent in many schools. The atmosphere was more relaxed, there were lots of smiles and engagement from the students, the teacher blended into the classrooms rather than standing front and center. In addition to the teacher as facilitatorm students seemed to be learning independently, from each other, in collaboration with their ILP partners, their school partners, and in general through learning networks they had developed.

Students and teachers shared that they are assessed using a customizable rubric with a standard structure. Mr. Lehman explained that this is one of the many ways in which they reduce situations where students have to figure out the teachers. Using a common or shared language is another. Students know what and how they’re assessed across the school. What I really liked with the assessment is that the teacher often is not the sole assessor of student work. Much of their work is evaluated by peers and/or their learning partners. There are a number of learning partners across the school. The partnerships are formed based on the actual needs of the project and could be organizations such as NASA or expert authors, engineers, or scientists. Testing is not the basis for most assessments. Students at SLA learn in a project-based environment where the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are emphasized in all classes. Some of the most interesting part of what I learned from students and teachers was the presentation part of their work.
Something I noticed that I found interesting is that when speaking of written projects teachers and students often refer to project length in minutes rather than the traditional “500 or 1000 word essay.” This seemed to be true even if the work they are doing is an essay. This makes sense since their work eventually becomes a presentation so the focus is on the presentation length rather than the length of the writing which is ultimately driven by the final product. The presentations students produce take on great forms and are driven but what the students and staff deem most effective to convey their message. A presentation may be a podcast uploaded to iTunes, a video uploaded to YouTube, or a discussion they are preparing to have with an elected official to try to drive change.
Publishing Student Work on YouTube
In a literacy class I visited I spoke with a few students and their teacher about the project they were working on. Students were working collaboratively in groups of 3 or 4 to write a short 5 – 7 minute play and using Google docs as the tool to do the collaborative writing. Once the plays are complete students will perform their work and many will tape their performances and post the videos on YouTube. I asked if YouTube was filtered at the school and the answer was yes. I asked, then why not publish to an unfiltered site like TeacherTube. The common sense answer was that students determine how they want their work celebrated, shared and who their audience is. There were no students who felt TeacherTube served the audience they wanted to reach. The school teaches students to produce work for their real-world in the real environments in which they operate.
The Technology-less Technology Lab
One of the things I loved seeing at SLA was their technology lab which was devoid of any technology. Instead it had really comfortable chairs and tables. If you’re a School 2.0-er this makes perfect sense to you. Technology/productivity is tied to people, not places. All SLA students travel with their own laptop and with laptop and internet access you harness a tremendous amount of 21st Century educational power.
I love the technology curriculum for the school because as I’ve rarely seen elsewhere, it is driven by the non-technology, content curriculum. The content teachers share what their plans are for the year and collaborate with the school technology specialist on what skills would make sense for her to reinforce based on the curricular goals. The idea of PowerPoint by grade X and Excel by grade Y has no place. Additionally it can have no place because many of the technologies that she will be teaching we may not even have heard of yet. How could there be a technology curriculum when just a few years ago most people didn’t even know what wiki, rss, Twitter, or Ustream meant. I love it!
Tech Support
The school does most of it’s own tech support with a combination of having a tech-savvy staff and a MOUSE Squad student tech support team. One very innovative idea the school is employing is using low-cost laptops as temporary replacement devices for students. The students believe these devices are sub par when compared to regular laptops, but they get the job done. A nice thing about this is it enables all students to have continual access to technology and serves as reinforcement for doing everything in your power to ensure your laptop does not need to be swapped.
Home-School Connection
Students use laptops as an extension of their brain/work and it doesn't appear this school could function as it does without enabling students to take their laptops with them when they leave school. Mr. Lehman does not have an elaborate security plan around this. The laptops are treated much like other instructional tools students carry. However, each student is provided with a nondescript backpack (important) that has a padded sleeve for protection. To date there have been few issues with device theft. He adds that enabling students to bring devices home reduces issues some schools have with overnight theft of devices within schools or holiday break ins. During the summer laptops are refurbished with the help of the school MOUSE squad.
I saw much more than this during my short visit, but I think this is a good start at sharing some of the great ideas that are being implemented at SLA. I hope my insights have inspired some new ideas for others. If they have please take a moment to comment on how, what, or why.
To learn more about the school you can visit their website, the principal’s blog, their fantastic family guide, read this article from Edutopia: My School, Meet MySpace: Social Networking at School, this one from Technology and Learning's Visit to SLA or read what the Techomnivore had to say about his experience during A visit to the Science Leadership Academy. You can also visit the school by Contacting the School to schedule an appointment.


  1. Hi Lisa, do we have similar schools in the city?

  2. Great coverage of this visit Lisa -- in-depth as always!

  3. @Maria - I have not seen other schools like this in NYC. I would email Mr. Lehman (a former NYC educator) who may be able to tell you what he has seen. I do know that there is an "iSchool" that will be opening in Chelsea, an Info Tech High School, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. They all have unique and valuable models, but they seem different than this school.

  4. Great coverage of the visit. Thanks, Lisa. I agree with you that technology skills should be taught in correlation to the curriculum and the advancement of technology. I believe we need a healthy balance between some basic computer skills (presentations, data, word processing) we want our students to have under their belt and exposure to newer tools. The way I see it the “newer” tools such as Wiki’s, blogs, Google Docs, Jing, the Tubes (You Tube / Teacher Tube), Feeds, Twitter are a natural extension to the “Basic” skills. One should compliment the other and be taught together, not separately. It is especially important to look at what they do at SLA and other examples as we further discuss how to better connect between our core curriculum and technology in NYC.