West Philly’s Quest for the Automotive X Prize
I didn’t see Simon again until two years later, in May 2012. I pulled into the Philadelphia Navy Yard one morning. The building I’d been told to look for, an old Victorian painted bone white, was next to the water, with a view of ships in the harbor. I knew I was in the right place when I saw a box that read MITER SAW WITH LASER next to a wicker chair on the front porch.
I walked through the door of a sunroom. A poster on the wall said:
WE ARE THE SUSTAINABILITY WORKSHOP
We will be known as . . .
“Hey, how’s it goin’?” Simon said, extending his hand. “I thought one of the kids could give you a tour.”
This place, the Sustainability Workshop, was the closest Simon had ever come to running his own school. Late in the previous year, he’d convinced the Philadelphia School District to let him design a project-based curriculum for a handful of seniors. Twenty-eight kids from three high schools signed up. Instead of attending their usual classes, they were now spending their days here at the Navy Yard.
Anthony Tran, an 18-year-old in glasses, shorts and high-tops, offered to be my tour guide. He was soon joined by another volunteer, Rasheed Bonds, 17. As Anthony and Rasheed walked me through a series of high-ceilinged rooms flooded with natural light, they described the way the school operates. Each week they have a “deliverable,” something concrete that they and their teachers agree is due on Friday, like a PowerPoint on LED lightbulbs, or a business plan for marketing electric go-karts. They track their own progress. There are no classes to speak of, and no classrooms. Whenever a group of students begin a project, they choose a room. The students move freely, carrying Google Chromebooks.
After the tour, Simon and I drove to a nearby coffee shop. “This is my best year professionally ever,” he said. “It’s worked better than we imagined. It’s kind of like building a car. You know there are going to be major problems. And we haven’t had any major problems. And maybe it’s because we’ve been prototyping and testing all this time.” I asked him how he felt about the X Prize, looking back. He admitted that if he had it to do over again, he would have designed the cars differently: “But so would everybody else in the competition.” In the end, it didn’t matter that West Philly fell short of the finals. They still beat 90 other teams, including one from Cornell University.
“They took us seriously,” Simon said. “We’re tinkerers!” He laughed. “And they gave us a venue to a world stage.”
The experience hardly scared West Philly away from competition. In 2011, the team entered a race for alternative-energy vehicles called the Green Grand Prix, in Watkins Glen, New York. More than two dozen teams brought cars to Watkins Glen. West Philly drove its GT sports car to first place and successfully defended the title in 2012.
Earlier this year, I got word that Simon had convinced both the school district and the School Reform Commission to let him scale up the Sustainability Workshop from a pilot program to a full-fledged district institution. The plan was to move from the Navy Yard into a building in West Philly. In September, 92 students began classes under Simon’s direction at the Workshop School. In addition to regular coursework, each student selects a “career concentration”: pre-engineering, automotive technology or auto-body technology. Simon is finally, at long last, running his own school.