Phila. Sustainability Workshop tries to reinvent the high school

Teacher Michael Clapper working with students. "I've been waiting my whole life for an opportunity like this," he says.
Teacher Michael Clapper working with students. "I've been waiting my whole life for an opportunity like this," he says. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 04, 2011

High school feels different in the big white mansion at the edge of the Navy Yard - no desks in rows. No 47-minute class periods. No warnings to remove the hat, put the cellphone away, take the exam seriously.

Instead, small groups of students are designing their own workshop space. They're drawing up more efficient bus routes for the Philadelphia School District. Their teachers act as mentors, sounding boards, not lecturers.

The premise? American high schools are broken.

The solutions? The founders of the Sustainability Workshop are trying to find them.

The workshop is an alternative senior-year project built on the lessons of the West Philadelphia High after-school program whose members have been building hybrid cars and winning important competitions for more than a decade.

Its founders - four teacher friends who worked at West - want to turn the workshop into a full-fledged school, under the district or a charter, by 2013.

"The indicators tell us this model isn't working," Simon Hauger, an engineer-turned-teacher who started the hybrid team, says on a recent school day. "We have to do it differently."

That means believing students can do real, important work, Hauger says. It means delivering a challenging curriculum built on student interests through hands-on projects. It means fostering strong relationships that form the underpinnings of everything.

Three months in, the school has garnered national buzz and attracted more than $500,000 in private funding from the Barra Foundation, the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster, and others.

Deep thinkers are already gushing over the workshop.

"I want to be down there all the time - to learn myself," says Andrew Zwicker of the Princeton Physics Plasma Laboratory.

"It is so clearly the future of education," says Zwicker, who is also associate director of education and workforce development for the innovation cluster. "Or at least it should be."

Perhaps more important, the 28 students who took a leap of faith three months ago - by leaving their neighborhood high schools to try a new kind of education - are excited, too.

Angelina Rementer wasn't an A student at Furness High. She had little time for science or math and hated getting up in the morning.

The workshop is different, she says.

"It's a new way of learning," says Rementer. "This place makes you want to come to school."

It's a sunny Thursday, and five students are grouped around a long wooden conference table in Quarters A, the historic Navy Yard mansion that houses the workshop. The morning's task? Figuring out how to make the workshop space more energy-efficient.

"We want to do hydrogen-cell energy," says July Hoo, "but to do that, we need a solar panel, and we'll put it on the shed."

Hauger, one of two full-time teachers, pokes his head into the room.

"We're making progress, Mr. Hauger," Brandon Cuthbert says.

Michael Clapper, the other full-time workshop teacher, wanders in a few minutes later. How's it going? he asks. What are your ideas? What are the tools we need to get our project done?

"We're not having that garbage-eating robot, right? That's off the table?" Clapper jokes.

There are groans and laughs. Matthew Riggan, another founder and now a volunteer at the school, enters. He likes the solar-panel idea but wants to know: "Did you talk about how to make it more efficient?"

The founders' aim is to turn the students' hypotheticals into reality. Experts will be consulted. Architectural plans will be drawn up. A structure will be erected.

There may be no Algebra 2 or English 4 at the workshop, but students learn the essential skills they need from those courses - solving simultaneous equations, interpreting complicated texts. It works for seniors now, the founders say, and it could work for all high schoolers.

The students all remain enrolled at their home schools - Furness, South Philadelphia, and West Philadelphia - but attend no classes there. They are eligible to participate in sports and clubs there, and many do.

The district has agreed to grant students course credits equivalent to those they would receive at their home schools.

Students had to apply for admission to the workshop, and serious problems with attendance or behavior would have disqualified them. Even so, their academic skills are "all over the place," Riggan says.

Work matters at the school. Attendance is noted. (It's up over attendance at the comprehensive high schools the students come from, the founders say.)

But the vibe is loose, with a lot of give and take. When the students are unruly, there is no threat of detention.

"If you don't sit down, I'm going to start singing country-western songs," says Clapper.

They sit down, and the class dissolves in laughter at the well-worn joke from the teacher who often addresses them as "family."

Students can grab a snack from the workshop kitchen and eat it during class, and no one is breathing down their necks to turn in homework.

"We have more freedom," student Trang Dang says. "We have some control. Nobody's telling you what to do. You have to figure it out yourself."

The workshop's opening day was Sept. 6, but in a way, the school was born nine years ago, over dinner in Chinatown.

Talk at the friends' gatherings often turned to how exhausting teaching was - not just the hard work, but the exercise of trading on their relationships with students to persuade them to learn things the adults didn't actually believe were useful.

("When's the last time you actually used the quadratic formula?" Hauger often asks.)

But on that night, conversation turned to a hypothetical school. What would it look like, they asked one another, if they started with a clean slate? What would you want kids to know and be able to do after four years?

Clapper, who like Riggan and Downey holds a doctorate in education, quit a tenure-track position at St. Joseph's University to find out.

"I've been waiting my whole life for an opportunity like this," he says. "Now when they ask, 'Why are we doing this?' there's always a real answer. We spend our time on authentic tasks."

It's still exhausting. Clapper and Hauger are not just teachers, but principals, college counselors, lunch ladies, fund-raisers, and everything in between.

Though everyone agrees the year is going well, there are still challenges. Workshop students generally knew how to get good grades at their old schools, but that hasn't always translated.

"How do you push to deep understanding?" Hauger asks. "That's really hard for some of them."

Clapper wants to talk to the students.

Security guards have complained to him that workshop kids were disregarding directions, darting across the street to catch a bus.

"How are we going to address this situation?" Clapper asks.

The students brainstorm: Tell SEPTA to run the shuttle more. End class early so students can have plenty of time to walk to the bus.

"I'm hearing a lot about SEPTA and SEPTA's troubles. I'm wondering how we could take responsibility and fix this as a community," says Clapper.

Hauger speaks up.

"You have an opportunity to change people's minds about how high school kids are in Philly," he says. "We are in conversations with adults all the time where we say, 'No, we know what they can do.' When a couple people are ignoring adults, that hurts all of us."

There's no formal student code of conduct at the workshop. Instead, the students came up with eight words, the qualities they want to be known for - intelligent, responsible, resilient, observant, innovative, respectful, humble, and motivated.

Students won't get in trouble for texting when they are supposed to be working on a financial plan for their project. But a teacher - or a classmate - might ask: If your group is having a conversation and you're texting, are you being respectful?

That might sound idealistic, but it works, student Jocamari Nunez says.

"Here, we really are all about the eight words," she says.

What the workshop has built wouldn't work in a 1,000-student high school, its founders believe. Maybe, they say, the answer is several campuses, 200 to 300 students each, sharing services but maintaining separate identities.

"I think what is scalable about what we do is the fundamental set of ideas," says Riggan. "Do real work, solve real problems. Trust kids to make good choices. Let them learn from failure. If we're serious about schools helping to change some of these kids' lives, we have to have these conversations."

Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146,, or @newskag on Twitter. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at

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