The U School is raising the bar in how education is taught in schools in the district.
“This is an innovative school,” said sophomore LaTaya Williams. “We have a lot of say in what we want to learn and we learn at our own pace. The teachers really do a great job of helping us in our classes and taking us to the next level.”
The U School, which is located at 2000 N. 7th St., came to fruition after the school district received a grant. The competency-based high school is the brainchild of founding principal Neil Geyette. The design process of the U School evolved through a series of meetings and discussions with 30 people including teachers, parents and students. The school’s name is derived from a symbol that includes a U in a circle, which means “Users at the Center.”
“A school can’t work if the people who use it aren’t at the center of what it is about, that is what the U School is all about,” Geyette said. “The gap between students’ senior year of high school until college drop-off is significant because there is too much responsibility put on students at one time. They haven’t built up the skill set in an adult-dominated environment where they have to make choices, manage their time and control everything in their lives.
“About 80 percent of Philadelphia kids don’t make it to their second year of college because of this,” he added. “We wanted to bring that freedom and responsibility to the kids starting in the ninth grade. We have quizzes, classwork and homework, but that is all practice for students before going to the performance test. It’s a big shift for kids in how we make school operate.”
The U School experience is through a process called “design thinking,” an approach to creative problem-solving that begins with understanding the need of the user (student). Students become “urban designers” who solve real-world problems in their communities through planning, research, dreaming and testing their ideas.
Through these problem-based learning experiences, students will gain 21st-century expertise as well as strong foundations in core subject areas that will be connected as interdisciplinary courses, which brings together learning objectives from the fields of science, social studies and mathematics.
“Instead of classes, there are workshops,” Geyette said. “The education will be a process of discovery, tailored to the learner. It will be organized around themes and big questions. Students move on when they have mastered the material and the tasks — so-called ‘competency learning.’
“The students at the U School drive their own pace of learning. This is something that students have never experienced before. Regardless of the skills and troubles the students may have, they are expected to take responsibility. They would spend their days doing interesting projects and be given the time they need to learn what they need to know.”
In humanities, ninth-graders are learning about methodology.
“Our first unit was an introduction to the course,” said humanities teacher Charlie McGeehan. “The topic was growing up online and digital rights and responsibility for young people. We recently moved into a unit on methodology where we use different type of stories focusing on traditional myths.”
“The students will also be writing their own myths,” he added. “We will be doing an exploration of ancient Greece specifically. The next unit will be based on fate versus free will. The students will read excerpts from ‘The Odyssey’ and then the students will look at how religion plays into fate versus free will.”
Students at the U School also participate in three innovation labs including build innovation, highlight and organize.
“The highlight innovation lab is based around digital media,” said highlight lab leader Joshua Kleiman. “My students are learning how to create pieces of video, audio, photography and eventually other digital media pieces to help understand the world around them. We investigate issues, concerns and interests of theirs. The students use the tools that they enjoy most in the media to create projects that will analyze the world around them.”
Sophomore Dymir Black enjoys learning about photography in highlight lab.
“I’ve been learning about the camera and how to take photos from different angles,” Black said. “I’ve been taking pictures of a little bit of everything. Lately, I’ve been taking close-up pictures for a project I have to do. I’ve learned a lot since being in this lab.”
In the organize lab, students are learning how to change their community by observing the people in it.
“The goal of the organize lab is to teach students how to be innovative thinkers,” said organize innovation lab leader Sophie Date. “It’s commutative development and design thinking. The goal ultimately is that students are engaged in projects that are supporting their communities and creating community change by learning about people. Right now, the students are working on a ethnography. The students are studying the lives of people and trying to figure out their desires, needs and challenges.”
For sophomore Daha Thaenrat, going to the U School has been a good experience.
“I like the concept of us playing a huge role in what we learn in school,” Thaenrat said.