EduCon 2023

Last weekend, my teammate Rachel Albright and I went to Philadelphia for a three day event called EduCon.  This annual conference mainly took place at Science Leadership Academy (SLA) High School at Center City. SLA opened around 2006, with EduCon starting a few years later.  SLA has become well known for its focus on PBL and internships, and has led to other Philadelphia schools following its model; most recently they have opened a new middle school (SLAMS).

I’ve been feeling like attending EduCon specifically, and visiting SLA in general, was being nudged to me by Fate.  I first heard about SLA/EduCon when reading Reinventing Project-Based Learning last fall, and then read about SLA again a few months later as one of four schools highlighted in Running with Robots.  

On the first day of the conference, we were led by a senior student through a tour of the flagship high school.  Besides being impressed with her obvious enthusiasm and knowledge for what SLA has to offer, I was also appreciative that such innovative instructional practice happened in an older facility with few shiny frills, minus some new machinery and equipment.  SLA proves the point that while PBL, passion-based projects, and deeper learning may benefit from a school renovation or a new build, it certainly doesn’t require it!

For the rest of the entry, I will highlight three EduCon breakout sessions I attended that personally stood out for me.

“The Case for Dreaming in Public”

This session easily won for best titled, and was facilitated by Timothy Boyle (founding principal of SLAMS) and David Jakes (veteran school designer and author of The Design Thinking Classroom). 

The session mainly consisted of “dreaming big” on what a new school might be and sharing those ideas with tablemates, which was intellectually stimulating.  But Jakes also shared anecdotes from previous school renovation/new build projects.  For example, he recommended having all stakeholders (educators and community members) meet for a “Salon Dinner.”  At the dinner, he would pose two provocative questions: What would it take to get it right?  What would it mean if we did?  Jakes also shared an example when the answers to those questions led not to a school that could double as a community center, but instead to a community center that just so happened to be a school during the weekdays.  Such a realization factored heavily into its design choices, and of course the kind of instruction and student interaction such a building would have. 

“Challenging Traditional School Leader Pathways and PD”

This session was facilitated by three leaders of the School District of Philadelphia (SDP), one of the top 10 largest in the nation: Katie Culver, Brandon Cummings, and Rosie Tarnowski.  

A few years ago, SDP did a re-org that included changes in PD development.  Among other changes, they decided to prioritize support for principals — not only because of the need for hiring, internally growing, and retaining such important personnel, but because philosophically, SDP believes principals are the most powerful change agent of their school building as well as their surrounding community.   This led to creating a new Leadership Pathway Framework (LPF) which articulates criteria for the assistant superintendents, principals, assistant principals, teacher leaders, and central office leaders.   In the session, they concentrated on one strand of LPF, Equity Centered Leadership.   These leadership competencies are nothing if not ambitious.  Consider this example, from the substrand “Trusting Relationships” in the Principal competency “Facilitates and Builds Trusting Relationships”:

The SPD presenters noted that similar frameworks for teachers and students were in the works, and acknowledged that while such leadership competencies were meant to drive growth, raise expectations and determine PD needs of principals and others, they were not yet used evaluatively — and there was internal debate whether they ever should be.

Additionally, SDP had recently launched leadership affinity groups.   To take one group example, black male educational leaders now have meetings and a safe space to share and speak about their unique experiences.  These affinity groups (as well as the leadership PD in general) have been highly successful — see photo below for data — but this has led to areas for future consideration.  For example, for educators that identified as another gender, or gay, should they form new and separate affinity groups? Participate in the larger one? Both?

Overall, it was exciting and inspiring to see such a large school district acknowledge the complex needs of its educational leadership and find ambitious ways to serve and grow them, particularly in the area of equity.

Let’s Design a School!

While somewhat similar in tone to “The Case for Dreaming in Public,” the major difference was the inclusion of a student panel facilitated by Mary Beth Hertz.  Four students from SLA’s middle and high schools had some great insights about education.  Here are some paraphrased quotes.

  • Answering the question “I go to school and enjoy…”
    • spending time with my friends and teachers I like.
    • extracurriculars (to allow students to think about what they want to do with their future).
    • classes with connections, teamwork, community.
    • how each class is unique, and teachers that try to make things fun.
  • Answering the question “What is school?” For what I want to do, some of my classes are beneficial, but some classes are hard to take seriously because it feels like kinda the same thing over and over since I was 4.  It doesn’t meet everyone’s needs.
  • Answering the question “What do you think the purpose of education is? How is ‘school’ and ‘education’ different?”
    • Being educated is different for different people.  Some people like to educate themselves. Education is about learning about your own identity, and being mindful.
    • School feels like a competition.  School turns education into a hierarchy.  Awards ceremony can make us feel bad, because who wins feels more subjective than objective.  But sometimes competition can be motivating too.  More than an award, I appreciate a teacher checking in with me with “Are you ok?” Or give me a compliment.
    • I don’t want scores and grades to define me.
  • Sometimes you need to be a teacher, and sometimes you need to be a person.  (This quote hit me hard!)

After the Q & A panel, we joined like-minded participants in groups to brainstorm what “our” new school might look like.  The students from the panel even walked around to give feedback and advice!  Although we had limited time, it got some great conversation going and had us questioning aspects of school we always take for granted.

Intriguingly, Hertz also shared that SDP is potentially piloting Walkabout Philly for high school students, hopefully in the 2024-2025 school year.  This would be the first Walkabout school outside of their original location in New York.  Walkabout Education centers around five “Challenge Areas”: Wilderness Experience (a leadership building exercise for students before the start of school that involves actual camping), Service Learning, Applied Academics, Career Internship, and Presentation (similar to a Defense of Learning).  A ten minute video that explains each of these Areas is here and embedded below.  I’m definitely interested in following Philadelphia’s journey in launching this school!

Walkabout School Model Overview from Walkabout Education on Vimeo.

Rachel and I definitely got some nuggets of gold from the three day conference, and were grateful to the EduCon educators and students who took the time to share their wisdom.

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