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Workshop School: tour this University City project based STEM high school

In its first year as fully-fledged public high program, the Workshop School has 92 students in the University City building that last year held the West Philly High School automotive program. With better resources and its new project-based learning structure, is the Workshop a model or an aberration?

Workshop School students work with Christalee Bieber, a longtime volunteer with the Hacktory hackerspace, in Novermber 2013. Photo courtesy of the Workshop School
It’s the same building in the same neighborhood. It has many of the same students and some of the same teachers in the same embattled school district. So why do many of the people inside 221 South Hanson Street in University City say this year is so different than last year?

“Our students are responding to the project based environment,” said Matthew Riggan, a cofounder of the Workshop School and an adjunct professor in the Penn Graduate School of Education.

It’s the first year for the Workshop School as a fully fledged public high school as part of the School District of Philadelphia. In a kind of perfect symmetry, after two experimental years incubated at the Navy Yard, their nearly 100 students are in the University City building that long housed the automotive vocational program from West Philly High School, though some felt the old was being shuttered for the new.

In 2007, Simon Hauger, another of the school’s cofounders and its trim, silver-haired public face, was a teacher at West Philly High leading an after-school program that would become one of the country’s most celebrated alternative-energy car modeling groups. Teamed up with his colleagues Michael Clapper, Rigan and former Marine C. Aiden Downey, what Hauger saw in his after school club became the basis for a new educational model.

That idea uses a project that excites students — say, build a 100+ mpg car — to develop curriculum around, like researching a business plan, soliciting funders, journaling the experience and developing the engineering and technical skills to launch the machine.

“This wouldn’t work for all students in the same way that the old model hasn’t worked for all of our students,” said Riggan of Workshop.

workshop school students

Workshop School students in the automotive body paint shop, including student body president DeShawn, in white t-shirt.

Think about DeShawn, the reserved and mature senior and class president who was directing a handful of his classmates in the school’s auto body one morning this month. Workshop School founding board member Ann Cohen, the retired longtime president of AFSCME Local 1637, was helping two freshmen lead a tour but after introducing DeShawn in the auto body, he took over.

Look at the the demolished car from which his team is pulling parts to build a new high performance car, he said. Now look at its re-built engine and the fiberglass frame that DeShawn’s vice president is painting the steely blue that the student body voted on, he said.

Below, take a tour of the Workshop School by using the navigational arrows.

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“I’ve learned more in the last couple months than I did in all the time before,” said DeShawn, who had the same well-liked teachers in the same facility in previous years when it was a part of West Philly High. What changed?

In part, yes, it’s because of the Workshop’s model, one that clearly works for DeShawn, who appears to be blossoming — later that morning, Hauger said cautiously that DeShawn has “overcome a lot.”

But these kinds of success stories risk being called more unicorn, than model, because in addition to project learning, Workshop brought new resources.

That’s what this grand experiment is all about: from senior-only trial inside a Victorian home hidden away at the Navy Yard to a dusted-off school with updated facilities, now the Workshop team is challenged to see if their system can find resiliency beyond its current advantages:

Beneath the excitement of the experiment, Workshop feels like a vocational school that works, built on the infrastructure that the West Philly high program had. Downstairs is the sprawling, multi-room auto body shop, where upperclassmen roam and tool around with charismatic teachers.

Upstairs are classrooms connected by a brightly lit corridor lined with bright blue lockers.

On the morning Technically Philly visited there, one group of students was taking a quiz on molecules, another class was discussing energy efficiency, students in another were giving presentations about their lives using music that defined them (adjacent to a recording studio that students were building, complete with their own sheet rock installation) and a fourth was sharing thoughts on local literature.

Lest you think STEM-heavy Workshop ignores the liberal arts, two students said English teacher and cofounder Clapper was the school’s “hardest teacher.”

I've learned more in the last couple months than I did in all the time before.

In just its first formal year, the school’s program doesn’t have a long track record to yet compare its academic impact. It’s why just about any new education effort comes with its critics.

The school’s cofounders don’t ignore their ongoing challenge to prove its viability.

In the teacher’s lounge, Hauger and Riggan talk about how the project model could look in elementary school and graduate school, like others might talk about sports. When Clapper and the half-dozen other teachers are balancing traditional structure with their own evolving philosophies, he, too, extrapolates on how you teach 140,000 students rather than just 92.

The current Workshop student body includes their first class of freshman and upperclassmen who chose to stay on from last year, transitioning from West Philly High to Workshop, while some of their peers from last year decided to stay with West Philly High and moved back to the main building.

matt riggan workshop

Workshop School cofounder Matt Riggan speaking at its University City opening in September 2013. Photo courtesy of the Workshop School.

Riggan, who has a ponytail, a goatee, an earring and a black dress shirt, looking like some pirate educator, is anything but confrontational when speaking about education reform.

“The School District has been a big supporter. We are in this beautiful facility, so we can focus on improving the model,” he said, interrupting at one point to see why one student was roaming the hallway. “We’re at a time when we need more good solutions, not one old one. We think we have one of them.”

Companies: School District of Philadelphia / The Workshop School

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