Students, parents eye hands-on approach at new school

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Neil Geyette , principal of the new U School: "Igniting that passion and that purpose with school and education will be a huge hook."
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Neil Geyette , principal of the new U School: "Igniting that passion and that purpose with school and education will be a huge hook."
Posted: September 05, 2014

LIKE MANY teenagers, Tyteana and Tyana Gutzmore had become somewhat bored by the monotony of school.

But when the twin sisters got accepted earlier this week to the U School - one of three new district high schools - their outlook quickly changed.

"I just can't wait," Tyana said. "It's awesome. I just like the fact that they're doing something different."

Different, yes, but also innovative, the district believes. The school, in the former Ferguson School at 7th and Norris streets, is based on a problem-solving model that teaches students core subjects while challenging them with real problems.

The school has no admissions criteria and its 115 students - it's small by design, with only ninth-graders this year - were selected through a lottery, with half from the surrounding neighborhoods and half from across the city.

The Gutzmores, whose neighborhood school is Martin Luther King High, said they are looking forward to more hands-on instruction in a smaller setting.

"It makes me feel ready to learn because it's not just like a regular classroom," Tyteana said.

Principal Neil Geyette said the focus on critical thinking and problem-solving will prepare students for career and college.

"For us, it's about getting young people to take that important content knowledge and move it to the next level, which is what they're going to be asked to do in the real world," he said.

Geyette, 31, is no stranger to taking on neighborhood schools. His first year teaching at West Philadelphia High was a turbulent one - numerous fires set, fights and student unrest.

He knows that, with no admissions criteria, the school is not getting all straight-A students. He said each student will have a personalized learning plan to measure growth and let them move at their own pace.

"Just [because] you can't write well doesn't mean you cannot think audaciously about solving problems for your community, so for us, igniting that passion and that purpose with school and education will be a huge hook," he said.

The structure recognizes that individualism. School starts at 8:55 a.m. Students begin with a brief period of stretching, singing and mental exercise. They have two 90-minute periods of core subjects. Another portion of the day is spent in Possi (short for possibilities), supporting each other in academic and emotional needs. Four days a week, students will have innovation labs in which they will design solutions for real problems. They also get a 15-minute recess daily.

The district says the school will receive the same budgetary allotment as other schools its size. Geyette has five teachers, one counselor and a nurse once every other week. The building also looks the same as most city schools, with a few new coats of paint.

At the same time, each student will get a Chromebook laptop, and will have a chance to go into the community thanks to some key partnerships.

Sam Reed III, a veteran teacher in the district who came over from Beeber Middle School, said it will be liberating to connect content to real problems.

"It feels empowering and it feels like we're going to really impact the kids, who are going to impact the world," he said. "Now, when I say we're going to change the world, they're not going to think I'm crazy."

Teachers have spent much of the summer in professional development and designing the curriculum.

Tyteana and Tyana said they were impressed with the staff after touring the school yesterday. They don't have any friends there, but they welcome the change.

"It's not the same routine. It's more hands-on," Tyana said.

Her sister added, "Change is good."

On Twitter: @ChroniclesofSol

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