Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Philadelphia School - Philadelphia PA

Located in the urban heart of Philly and founded in 1972, The Philadelphia School  (TPS) is an independent school serving 395 students in grades Pk-8. The primary campus sits on one side of a busy city street, while the preschool is across the street in a newly acquired property being developed as a large multipurpose space. I spent the afternoon with Head of School Amy Purcell Vorenberg, a well-known educator, whose 2008 article in Independent School Magazine, "School Matters: Rigor vs Vigor," provided many of us a creative framing for answering the question, "Are our schools academically rigorous enough."

Over the past few years,TPS has re-visited its historical roots to define more clearly its progressive vision. In the preceding years, there had been some mission drift as the school was responding to shifting demographics and an uncertainty about its educational philosophy. Not so these days as Head of School, Amy Purcell Vorenberg, along with the Board of Directors has led a strategic planning process culminating in a reclaiming of the founding core values of the school and its commitment to the principles of progressive education.

Amy Purcell Vorenberg
Amy earned her progressive stripes at the Atrium School in Watertown, MA., and took away from that experience the intuition and background to "know a progressive school when I see one." As she came into her position at TPS, Amy shepherded a process to examine the language that the school was using to describe itself as intentionally as possible, moving the school's stakeholders toward a shared understanding of the school's core value categories: relational, developmental, innovative, constructivist. To accomplish this, Amy spoke with the founders of the school, faculty past and present, alumni, and current students. The net result is a striking strategic plan published in 2008, laying out a five-year vision for governance, management, and program. With this reaffirmation of mission, the school now is more comfortable in its progressive skin.

These four value categories underpin Amy's definition of progressive education. For example, the relational imperative shapes the school's commitment to social justice. In Amy's words, "We do two things: we take care of each other and we get smarter." She describes how TPS programs place kids into the broader community to gain knowledge about their city, and to give back. For example, the 3rd graders ask the question, "How can we be a fairer community?" They take trips to many places around Philadelphia to learn about life across the city's ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic spectrum . Classroom activities allow the students to reflect on what they believe is working in their community, and ways to address injustices.

TPS's a capella choir sing at the NBOA conference
I asked Amy to reflect on the primary advantages she sees inherent in a progressive education. She points to the relationships students develop with their teachers where there is a mutual give and take. Kids learn to ask questions directly and have confidence as learners; if they have a good idea, they believe it should happen. Amy shared an anecdote where a 10th grader organized a service trip to Bolivia. She had the confidence to make it happen and the school supported her. Amy watched her grow and blossom as a student and a person, in large part because she received respect and affirmation from the school. Students also develop their leadership skills in progressive schools. At TPS, they plan all-school events, lead assemblies, and have an effective student council. Students are divided into vertical family groups with younger and older kids meeting together around all-school themes. As much as the activities are fun, they also provide the older kids with frequent opportunities to model and care for the younger students.

TPS has a bouncy vibrancy one doesn't feel at every school. Kids are actively engaged and there is an ineffable buzz of activity throughout the school. With its progressive mission and vision securely intact, TPS is surely on the move to a bright future.

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