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Springside Chestnut Hill Academy: private K-12 school does entrepreneurship

At Springside Chestnut Hill Academy this year, the administration rolled out a new curriculum meant to teach students how to observe phenomenon, propose a solution to a problem and take that idea through several incarnations, working out the kinks along the way.

Springside Chestnut Hill Academy student Thomas Andrews (left) works on his 2013 submission to the FIRST Robotics competition with Robert Ervin.

While some educators are still talking about how to encourage entrepreneurship among high school students, one elite Philadelphia private K-12 school has launched what it is calling the first entrepreneurship leadership program of its kind in the region.

At Springside Chestnut Hill Academy this year, the administration rolled out a new curriculum meant to teach students how to observe phenomenon, propose a solution to a problem and take that idea through several incarnations, working out the kinks along the way.

Called the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, the program is built on a foundation of Stanford University’s design thinking but brought to a secondary school.

There are other efforts locally to bring entrepreneurship to high school students — think of the Startup Corps program and the project-based Workshop School — but every student that comes through the school will now get a taste of creating his or her own job.

In addition to Stanford’s process of observing, hypothesizing and practicing the implementation of solutions, the program uses seven strands of learning that include entrepreneurship, global immersion and leadership.

The curriculum “provides students with a set of practices and competencies that prepare them for the future,” said Sally Maxwell, English teacher at Springside, located in a particularly leafy swath of northwest Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill. (The school has a heavy focus on sustainability, including an extensive solar panel array)

Beginning with this year’s freshman class, every ninth- and 10th-grade student at Springside will take seven seminars, one for each of those strands of learning. Those classes are the art of communication, engineering/new media, entrepreneurship, ethics, global immersion, leadership and statistics. In the last two years of high school, the students will take electives that combine these various disciplines.

Photo of the school courtesy of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.

Photo of the school courtesy of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.

Priscilla Sands, president of Springside, considered technology to be of ever-growing importance when she picked up Clayton M. Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, for leisure reading. Inspired by his thoughts on disruptive innovation, she read his other works, including Disrupting Class, which was his take on implementing those ideas in the modern classroom.

In the 2010 merging of the all-girls Springside High School and the historic all-boys Chestnut Hill Academy, Sands said she thought of the school as a startup and wanted to develop the kind of disruptive curriculum that would prepare its customers — the students and their parents — for the future.

This way of thinking about education’s role in the lives of today’s students isn’t unique to Sands and Christensen. While a student in University of Pennsylvania’s entrepreneurship program, Rahilla Zafar, who teaches entrepreneurship at Springside Chestnut Hill, “couldn’t help but think, I wish I’d learned this in high school,” she said. “And I really fundamentally believe that.”


Of course, most won’t experience a school like this. Though tuition assistance is offered, Springside is still more expensive than many colleges. Spread across a beautiful 62-acre campus near the Wissahickon, the school’s 1,100 students have access to amenities that simply don’t exist in the vast majority of schools across the country, particularly in much of Philadelphia. And maybe that’s the point: expensive experiments in thrusting entrepreneurship onto a young privileged cohort may be the only way to continue to broaden new skills onto a wider array of students.

Knowing the power of the entrepreneurial mindset, Sands and the rest of the school board considered Christensen’s works and developed the new curriculum in a way that built on the school’s previously successful departments and programs while “asking teachers to become entrepreneurs,” Sands said.

One program that has seen continuous growth and success is the engineering and robotics program that department chair Peter Randall founded 12 years ago in a small closet and which has grown into a world-renowned program that won five design awards at last year’s FIRST Robotics competition, for which the Springside team built a robot that could pick up basketballs and shoot them with nearly dead-on precision from various spots on a basketball court.

When the program started, kids rarely entered the field of engineering. As of three years ago, 20 percent of the school’s graduates matriculated college with an engineering major declared. The students who go through Randall’s program can leave school with three and a half years of engineering experience, which puts them well ahead of other students from schools where robotics aren’t taught as early as first grade.

Randall said he loves the atmosphere of his classroom, where he is more of a peer than a standard teacher who has all of the knowledge students need. Last year, students designed hovering aircraft with video cameras on board that they could program to film a basketball game from 20 feet in the air. In the course of that process, Randall’s students learned about various technologies and processes that he didn’t know of. When students are able to teach him, it’s “wicked cool,” he said.

Randall’s fellow educators are embracing that concept of teacher-students relationships as peer-to-peer relationships. (It’s unavoidable to mention here that Springside is currently going through an ugly legal battle with a teacher who was fired for allegedly sending inappropriate text messages to a female student.)

With students surrounded by as much technology as they are, Maxwell said she encourages her students to find, evaluate and apply information on their own. “I won’t answer any factual question in class,” she said. “They have to find it on their own. The teacher is no longer the repository of learning that she used to be.”

All of this means that the Springside Chestnut Hill Academy curriculum is “much more rigorous but also more joyful,” said Sands, who sees her students enjoying the learning they’re doing.

This report was done in partnership with Temple University’s Philadelphia Neighborhoods program, the capstone class for the Temple’s Department of Journalism.

Companies: Springside Chestnut Hill Academy

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