Revolution School: When “Reimagining School” Actually Happens



Listen to my interview with Henry Fairfax, Mike Pardee, and Jane Shore (transcript):

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In almost every conversation I have with another educator—as long as we have the luxury of time to let our thoughts wander around some—we end up at a place where we start to fantasize. In talking about problems and challenges of teaching, or of school in general, one of us will say something like, “If only we had more time in the day with students,” or “Wouldn’t it be great if students could just work on big, long-term projects that really meant something to them?” or “I would love to get students out in the community, solving real problems and making a real impact.” 

Usually, the fantasy dissolves after a few seconds, when the dreamer remembers the limitations placed on them by standardized tests, lockstep schedules, pacing guides, and grading expectations, a set of constraints that all fall under the umbrella of The Way We’ve Always Done Things. Most people locked in these systems have dreams of how things could get better, but they have no idea where to start.

Some teachers figure it out by building a school-within-a-school, like the three who started the Apollo School, a three-hour interdisciplinary program at a high school in York, Pennsylvania. Others do it within a single class period, like Indiana teacher Don Wettrick did with his innovation class.

Other people go even further and start from scratch, building a whole new school with the fantasy at the center, rather than forcing the fantasy to work around existing limitations. Today we’ll be looking at a school like that: Philadelphia’s Revolution School. Currently nearing the end of its second school year, this high school is the end product of a group of brave, forward-thinking educators who saw what education could be, and instead of trying to work within the system, asked themselves, “Why don’t we just build it?”

Head of School Henry Fairfax welcomes students to Revolution.

To learn more about Revolution I interviewed three people: Henry Fairfax, who is Revolution’s Head of School, Jane Shore, their Head of Research and Innovation, and Mike Pardee, one of Revolution’s Master Educators. You can listen to our whole conversation above, or stay here for an overview.

One last thing: I realize that almost everyone reading this is in a situation where they can’t necessarily replicate what this school is doing. It would be understandable if you learned about Revolution and thought, Well that sounds great, but it’s basically impossible in my district. I’m spotlighting this school because I want you to start thinking about ways you could do something kind of like this, how you might be able to reconfigure some part of your school day, collaborate with other teachers, reach out for community partnerships, or at the very least brainstorm some possibilities. This exact thing may not be doable in your school—at least maybe not in the near future. But it might take shape as an elective, a two-hour combined class, a special program within your school, or even a summer program you might launch together with a few other teachers, as Mike Pardee puts it, a group of “crazy innovative people who are willing to take such a leap.” 

My hope is to get you thinking about what your leap might look like.

How Revolution School Works

The Basics

Revolution School is a private high school in Philadelphia with a current student population of 17 students. They started their first year (2019-2020) with only ninth graders, then added a new freshman class for the current school year (2020-2021). Although Revolution is its own program, they share a building with Community Partnership School, which serves students in kindergarten through 5th grade. Tuition is charged on a sliding scale based on each family’s ability to pay. The remaining funds come from grants.

Curriculum

Learning at Revolution is built around inquiry lanes, interdisciplinary study pathways that focus on big questions like these:

  • What’s Driving What? How do public decisions around transportation impact access to educational and economic opportunities?
  • Neighborhoods in Transition: What defines a neighborhood? How do stories give us a lens into neighborhoods? How can public artwork and public service promote community empowerment and instill pride of place?
  • WaterWays: How has Philadelphia’s location at the confluence of two rivers provided both opportunity and challenge to its residents?
As part of a food production project, Maria and her fellow students took a trip to Greensgrow Farms to prepare to build their own hanging gardens at school.

Each semester, students choose two interdisciplinary projects in these lanes, with one full day per week devoted to each one. These flexible blocks of time allow students to focus deeply on their work, collaborate with others, travel off-campus for research, and “learn to organize (their) time without shifting focus at predetermined intervals.”

Students spend the remaining hours in writing and math labs, reading, doing personal development work in Advisory periods, and participating in Mastery Workshops, where they work to refine their skills in specific areas, such as performance or design, alongside skilled artists and practitioners from the city of Philadelphia.

The chart below shows a typical week’s schedule at Revolution, with two large blocks of time set aside for inquiry projects (an interactive version of the chart can be found here). Note that the top and bottom row are duplicates: Students choose between an 8am-3pm schedule, or a 9am-4pm schedule.

Click image for larger view.

Assessment happens through multiple pathways. Students also give end-of-semester “Presentations of Learning,” where they share what they’ve learned and support it with various artifacts as evidence. Revolution does give grades, but they don’t arrive at them in a traditional way. Here’s how they describe their approach on the website: “Our goal is not to hand out letters or gold stars, but to help you go from good to better to best. Our focus is on growth, not grades. Revolution School teachers will never use low grades to pressure you into achieving. Instead, they’ll look at your progress over time. Students who need a bit more time to gain certain skills will receive a ‘not yet,’ then work with teachers to take concrete steps toward achieving mastery in that area.”

Tasneem edits her podcast at PhillyCAM, who collaborated with Revolution students on their mural project podcasts.

And what about standards? Does Revolution hold itself accountable for meeting any kind of defined academic standards? Because they are a private school, they are not legally required to document this kind of alignment, but that doesn’t mean rigorous academic work isn’t happening.

“We have a slightly different approach to pedagogy and curriculum than state standards necessarily often entail,” Pardee says. “It’s a work of art to build the bridges between what was and what will be.”

Still, as they craft their vision, “We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” Pardee says. “It matters to us that we deliver academically enriched curricular education that prepares kids for college or whatever beyond, but we want to do it in ways that leverage their passions and interests and connect with them in ways that I no longer found most conventional educational approaches doing.”

Journey and Sodd practice bandaging a bleeding wound as part of getting their CPR and First Aid certification.

Community Partnerships

From its inception, Revolution’s founders wanted the school to be firmly embedded in the community, so they work hard to make sure community partnerships are an integral part of the learning.

“We really see the city of Philadelphia as an extension of our classroom,” says Shore. “In the development of the school, we began to look at the assets of our city and plan around a systems thinking approach to education. So our school is all about co-creation with students and also co-creation with the community.”

In their weekly Culinary Café class, Simon and Gabe prepare fruit custard tarts, a favorite with the students.

The partnerships are formed with an incredibly diverse group of individuals and organizations, including journalists, small businesses, charities, media and tech companies, and artists, to name just a few. And these are real relationships: The partners get to know the students and invest time in their growth, and in return student work often enriches and improves the community.

“Our partners do more than give tours and guest lectures,” reads the partnerships page on Revolution’s website. “They sit in on student Presentations of Learning and become active mentors in our students’ lives. Some work actively alongside faculty to build out rich Project Inquiry Lanes that have real relevance in our community. Others are instrumental in our wellness program, using their expertise in food, health, and physical fitness to help our students make informed choices around personal well-being.”

School of Thought: Revolution’s Online Community

So much of the work at Revolution happens in real time and (before and after COVID) in person, so part of the school’s architecture needed to include an online space for exploring ideas and having important conversations. To meet that need, School of Thought was launched.

The weekly blog and newsletter serve as ways to gather all interested parties—from inside and outside of Philadelphia—in conversation around the work Revolution is doing.

“We see the School of Thought as an extension of the school to both fuel the school with the learning that’s taking place outside and also to fuel a learning community of people who are out there answering questions and building community around change in education,” Shore explains.

Adjusting to COVID

Revolution’s inaugural year began in September of 2019, so they only had a few months behind them before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the world shut down in March 2020. Suddenly the school, which was created to allow maximum engagement with the community, was cut off from its most important resource.

Community partners, who would normally engage with students in person, met with them over Zoom instead.

Instead of letting this new set of circumstances crush them, Revolution regrouped, found ways to accomplish their mission through virtual means, and reframed the way they looked at the problem.

“You have to change your lens and say, okay, where are the opportunities in this moment?” Fairfax says. “One way of looking at challenges is to say ‘how are we going to get through it?’ and the other is to say ‘What opportunities can we unpack?’”

Could this work in your district?

One big reason Revolution works so well is that they were able to start from scratch, in a private setting, with a small group of students. They didn’t have to build it within an established system or push back against any existing limitations.

But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t create something similar where you are, building a program that preserves the ingredients of co-creation, community partnerships, flexible scheduling, and an emphasis on inquiry and personal development. It might not look exactly the same, but it could accomplish a lot of the same goals.

What advice do the Revolution folks have for people who want to create a similar program in their own districts?

The first piece of advice is to find like-minded people to join you. “You need a team,” Pardee says. “The trans-disciplinary and co-creating and collaborative aspects of this are built into the DNA. They’re dealbreakers if you don’t have them.”

Along with a team, you need to establish time and space to work with them. “We are in a much more labor-intensive faculty culture here,” Pardee explains. “We do a lot more planning among and between teachers than I think is typical in many schools where they just shut the door and the teacher just does his or her thing. In order to realize this vision more fully, you kind of need a more micro-schoolish approach, some collaboration and synergy and symbiosis among some group of crazy innovative people who are willing to take such a leap.”

The basic building blocks of Revolution School—inquiry-based learning, community partnerships, co-creation with students, and flexible scheduling—are available to anyone who believes in them enough to bring them to life in some form in their own district. Maybe you’re already doing something like this; if you are, please share with us in the comments and provide a link to your school or program. If this kind of thing is still in the “fantasy” stage for you, start building your team of crazy innovative people now, then come back later and tell us how it went.

Come back for more.
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