19 Philly-Area Schools Rethinking Education in Big Ways and Small

School hasn’t changed much in 60 years, but don’t tell that to these format-busters.

alternative schools open connections

Open Connections in Newtown Square. Photograph by Matt Zugale

Open Connections

Where home and school amplify each other

Location: Newtown Square | Ages: 2 to 18 | Enrollment: 130 | Price: Starts at $4,000 | Founded: 1978

Open Connections may be situated on 28 bucolic acres, but on a drizzly day last spring, perhaps the most revealing feature of the cozy private-school campus was an indoor corner no bigger than five square feet. Here, a girl — maybe four? — confidently wielded not a princess wand or a pirate sword, but a power drill. “I’m making a home for my guinea pig,” she said, pushing a blond tendril away from her safety goggles. For her, it was no big deal, just a typical morning at O.C.

“We view it as our job to keep natural curiosity alive,” says co-director Julia Bergson-Shilcock, whose parents founded the school in the ’70s. It’s “partnership education,” meaning, as Bergson- Shilcock says, “The entire educational journey does not fall solely on the family or on O.C., but rather, both work together to create a holistic and engaging educational life experience.” For some students, their days at O.C. — where facilitators run science labs and classes in language arts, civics, life skills, math and sciences — are their most structured; for others, they’re the more loosey-goosey part of the week.

In most cases, students attend a few days each week, in tandem with their own at-home curricula. Hannah McNichol, 16, has been going to O.C. since she was three; she’s now in the school’s Shaping Your Life program for teens, which meets two days a week. She relishes the flexibility the program offers and the diversity of her peers. But more than anything, she appreciates the independence. “I think taking control of your education and your life is a great way of preparing for the real world,” she says. “You’re not always going to have someone to guide you and hold your hand along the way.”

Bucks Learning Cooperative

Location: Langhorne | The Twist: Design-your-own classes

A class on silence? One on Al Qaeda? Or another on the history of skateboarding — taught by a classmate? These have all been actual courses at BLC, a private high school predicated on the idea that school doesn’t have to suck for teens. Here, students — who attend three days a week, plus take a Friday field trip — decide what they’ll learn. As a result, those who’ve struggled in more traditional school settings find themselves thriving. “People probably think we just come here to hang out. But we’re not here to play around all day,” says Sophia Parento, 17. BLC grads have gone on to study theater costume design at the University of Cincinnati, acting at the New School, and premed at Ursinus; others have pursued music and finance. No surprise, then, that as co-founder Paul Scutt says: “We have happiness in abundance. The kids are happy, the parents are happy, the teachers are happy.” Grades: Enrolls kids ages 13–18.

The Workshop School

Location: University City | The Twist: Ditching subjects

This public high school, which has 240 students, isn’t organized by subject; it’s interdisciplinary. “The world isn’t defined by subject area, so we don’t really see why the school day should be,” says co-founder Matthew Riggan. There’s an emphasis on problem-solving, collaboration, communication, internships, and emotional intelligence — philosophies traditionally reserved for private schools — that comes through in projects like last year’s Shark Tank–style competition in which juniors and seniors had to pitch nonprofit business plans to outside judges. TWS is one of nine schools in the School District of Philadelphia’s Innovation Network — Vaux, on the next page, is another — which supports schools offering an alternative vision. Grades: 9–12.

alternative schools main line classical academy

Main Line Classical Academy in Bryn Mawr. Photograph by Matt Zugale

Main Line Classical Academy

Cultivating modern-day Renaissance people

Location: Bryn Mawr | Ages: 5 to 13 | Enrollment: 48 | Price: $11,000 | Founded: 2015

Picture the most stimulating parts of a liberal arts college education — delving deeply into poetry or art, music or language. Now reduce that mental image down to kid size, and you get a sense of what goes down at this Main Line private school.

Main Line Classical was co-founded by Asya Sigelman, a mom of five and associate professor at Bryn Mawr College. “In the States, we have this vision of college being the time to be exposed to a liberal arts education — but I believe wholeheartedly that the time to lay the foundation for that is in kindergarten and the early elementary years,” she says. To that end, students — 48 of them and growing — receive rigorous instruction in piano, violin, French, Latin, Hebrew, the arts, robotics and more — without grades for now, but with high expectations. “The school is not interested in adopting each new, mostly untested idea in education that comes down the pipeline,” says Jo-Anne Kaplan, director of admissions and development. “We believe in teaching in a way that we know has worked for generations.”

But is it too tough? No, says Sigelman: “The rigor is balanced by the small size and warmth of the place. We really believe that children are never too young to learn great things.”

The School in Rose Valley

Location: Rose Valley | The Twist: Letting kids get dirty

Pardon the pre-2016 reference, but Michelle Obama would be kvelling in her kale over the Farm-to-Fork program at this private school. Student meals now come almost entirely from the campus’s 18 chickens and student-run garden. But it’s more than just trendy. Head of school Rod Stanton says kids are learning skills like engineering, botany, problem-solving, cooperation, and processing difficult experiences, like the death of an animal. Plus, they’re getting outside. Another benefit: Last year, the farm saved the school $11,000 in food costs. Grades: PreK–6.

West Chester School District

Location: West Chester | The Twist: Bringing back play

Remember play? That rad thing kids used to do all the time before all those metrics and tests and tech mucked it up? Last year, West Chester superintendent Jim Scanlon, with insight from experts like Temple child development researcher Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, brought it back in the form of a new kindergarten — one that also became full-day. The program features purposeful play — free time at recess, daily specials like PE and art, and opportunities to, say, act out the life cycle of the butterfly, rather than sit on a rug quietly while being read to about it. Sweet by-products of all this fun: By year’s end, kindergartners were still hitting all of their first-grade-readiness benchmarks, occupational therapy referrals were down, and student enrollment had soared. Grades: K–12.

Vaux Big Picture High School

Location: North Philly | The Twist: Making alternative education accessible

For many families, progressive education is a pipe dream. But the nonprofit Big Picture Philadelphia has made strides to change that. Last year, it opened the doors to 126 freshmen at Vaux in Sharswood, in partnership with the Philadelphia Housing Authority and the School District of Philadelphia. The goal: to bring progressive, community-minded education and opportunities for “real-world” prep to an underserved area. To that end, the public school focuses on strengthening peer connections, internships, mentorships and college prep. And as local community organizations like the Temple Community Health Center become tenants on-site, Vaux will become a true neighborhood hub. Grades: currently 9–10; 11 and 12 coming soon.

Fusion Academies

Location: Ardmore, Malvern and Cherry Hill | The Twist: One-on-one learning

You’ve heard of concierge physicians. But concierge schools? Fusion, launched on the West Coast in 1989, was initially popular among the surf set, who wanted class schedules to work around peak wave times; there are now 50 private Fusion Academies in the country. The one-to-one student-to-teacher ratio (for students in grades six through 12) means kids work at their own pace — taking a course over two months, or perhaps completing it more intensively in just one. (School is open year-round.) “Every student can benefit from individualized instruction — there’s no one ‘type’ of student who attends,” says Cherry Hill Fusion head of school Rob DiMedio. Grades: 6–12.

alternative schools philly free school

Philly Free School in Grad Hospital. Photograph by Matt Zugale

Philly Free School

Tons of freedom for a democratic education

Location: Grad Hospital | Ages: 4 to 19 | Enrollment: 75 | Price: Sliding scale ($4,000 on average) | Founded: 2011

How the hell do you explain a place like this?” asks Jabrea Reid, 19. She’s trying to articulate how her self-directed, self- governed private school operates. Let’s try this: Here, students have a say in everything, from how to spend their day — maybe wandering around a city park, playing video games, or roller-skating in the basement rink — to how to discipline rule-breakers. If it sounds like utopian day care, consider yourself checked: “I think kids are wired to grow and learn — that’s what they do best. So when you give them a place where they can explore safely, in an environment where they’re allowed to have agency and be in charge of themselves, they thrive,” says Reb Loucas, who co-founded the school with a group of people including his wife, Michelle.

PFS is one of a few dozen democratic schools in the world and the only one in the city. (The South Jersey Sudbury School, another democratic school, opened in 2015.) The premise: Traditional schooling is outdated, having been designed during the Industrial Revolution. Here, students seek out their own resources (books, local professors, YouTube tutorials) in anything from sociology to engineering. There are no tests and no grades. Adults don’t initiate learning; they provide guidance. If students so choose, they figure out a way to translate their learning into transcripts colleges can embrace.

“I learned how to co-exist with different people,” says Blythe Bloom, a PFS grad who’s now a freshman at Marlboro College in Vermont. “I had time to get a job and learned how to manage my time. I learned how to live my best life and do what makes me happy and just be.”

The Philadelphia School

Location: Fitler Square | The Twist: Empowering kids to speak up

Advocacy isn’t an instinct; it’s a skill set — one that TPS takes seriously. That’s the impetus behind the Let’s Go Lobbying elective introduced two years ago in the private school, which leads students through the process of recognizing a problem, figuring out whom to contact about it, and finding a way to be heard. Since the course debuted, students have lobbied Senator Pat Toomey for more background checks on gun purchases, City Council members about the beverage tax and later start times for public schools, and more. They’ve been to City Hall, Harrisburg and D.C. — and they’re just getting started. Grades: PreK–8.

Germantown Academy

Location: Fort Washington | The Twist: Breaking a sweat

G.A. sits on a whopping 126 acres — and to take better advantage of its campus, the school rolled out 20 brand-new mountain bikes for fourth- and fifth-graders to use this fall. “Riding is a life skill that can teach confidence as well as enjoyment of the outdoors,” says Sue Szczepkowski, the private school’s head of lower school. “If the elective is successful, it will be incorporated into the core PE programming, so all students will participate.” Grades: PreK–12.

The Crefeld School

Location: Chestnut Hill | The Twist: Having altruism as a core value

We know the world could use some TLC. And at Crefeld — a private, progressive secondary school — community service isn’t just ingrained in the school’s ethos; it’s carved into the calendar. Every Wednesday at 1 p.m., every student dedicates the afternoon to making a difference. Some go into the Wissahickon to rebuild trails; others make stuffed animals for children in foster care; some play music for residents of a mental health facility. “There can be a sense of ‘I am just one person. I can’t change anything,’” says Crefeld head of school George Zeleznik. “Giving back lets kids know that they are powerful agents of change — they can help.” Grades: 7–12.

alternative schools haines sixth grade center

Haines Sixth Grade Center in Medford. Photograph by Matt Zugale

Haines Sixth Grade Center

An antidote to the awkward years

Location: Medford | Ages: 11 to 12 | Enrollment: 278 | Price: Free to taxpayers | Founded: 2004

It’s no secret that middle school kicks off those brutal soul-searching years that leave many kids feeling lost. At Haines Sixth Grade Center, however, students can’t lose their way. Literally: The public school is designed as a rectangle. But figuratively, too: The single-grade school — the only one of its kind in our region — eases 11- and 12-year-olds through the transition from elementary school to the upper grades.

The project was largely spearheaded by Medford’s current superintendent, Joseph J. Del Rossi, who recognized the need for such an approach; the district then converted a former elementary school into the new center.

Vicky Stone is a Medford mom of seven; her youngest finished his year at Haines this past spring. She says the Haines experience was phenomenal: “You’re just dealing with kids your own age, so there’s not that pressure of, ‘Oh the eighth-graders are looking down on me.’ And at a point in your life when you’re starting to develop self-awareness and how you fit with others, to not have that peer pressure is wonderful.”

Teachers agree. “The students are still little kids,” veteran teacher Jackie Mann says. “It’s awesome that we get the chance to have one more year with them to make sure they know who they want to be before they feel all the pressure of society.” Society, sure — but it may be the little stressors that students most appreciate being spared. “At Haines, we got the chance to get used to having lockers and changing classes,” says recent grad Lizzy Adler. “The way they portray middle school in books and movies, there are huge hallways and huge lockers” — not to mention huge students. “Haines wasn’t like that, and I ended up enjoying it more because of that.”

East Bradford Elementary School

Location: West Chester | The Twist: Reading to puppies

When you mix 85 kindergartners with a handful of dogs, you get more than Instagram gold — it’s a recipe for early literacy. The premise behind “Dog Days,” started in 2016 by teachers Deanne DiDomenico and Stacey Dougherty, goes something like this: Reading aloud has a positive impact on fluency and comprehension, and dogs — nonjudgmental, cute — make the ideal audience. The biggest benefit, says DiDomenico, is that there’s no negative feedback, which “drives the desire for practice and willingness to try harder texts.” Grades: K–5.

Project Learn School

Location: Mount Airy | The Twist: Getting kids outside

Forest School may sound like something out of a Maurice Sendak book, but it’s actually how students at this private school do Wednesdays. In a program modeled on Scandinavian nature school, kids spend four hours in the Wissahickon regardless of the weather. They hike, climb trees, write, paint and build fires; they spend five to 10 minutes sitting alone, in awareness and silence. “It’s a way for children to not only learn about the nature around them,” says admissions director and social studies teacher Aisha Anderson-Oberman, “but also to see themselves as protectors of that nature.” Grades: K–8.

Kennett High School

Location: Kennett Square | The Twist: Empowering STEM girls

Breaking down bro culture in Silicon Valley starts with engaging girls in science and math while they’re young. And at Kennett, girls are making sure they get the access and resources they deserve. Last year, students founded their own chapter of the Society of Women Engineers; they meet monthly after school and invite speakers, like engineers from DuPont and Wawa. There are now 18 members, many of whom compete on the school’s nationally ranked robotics team. Grades: 9–12.

alternative schools c.b. community schools

C.B. Community Schools in Roxborough. Photograph by Matt Zugale

C.B. Community Schools

A reliable — and results-driven — space for kids who often get left behind

Location: Roxborough | Ages: 16 to 21 | Enrollment: 70 | Price: Free | Founded: 2015

For young people in Philly’s foster care system, just getting to school — never mind getting through it — is a challenge. Joshua Childs knows: In the past year alone, he found himself in four different foster residences. “Youth in foster care have to face questions every day; they have to wake up and think, ‘Is this family going to kick me out?’ or ‘If I move to another home, how am I going to get to school?’ or ‘I’m supposed to be at court on Tuesday, but I also have a final exam on Tuesday.’”

Enter C.B. Community Schools, the brainchild of Roberta Trombetta, an attorney who has spent her career working in child welfare. Unlike any other program in Philly, C.B. — a private school that’s free — does whatever it can to help kids in the foster and juvenile detention systems graduate from high school. “We’ve created a space where there’s on-site mental health services and social services that help them take care of the everyday needs of life that most of us take for granted,” says Trombetta. “So that they only have to focus on learning.”

Students are referred by lawyers, foster parents, other kids and case managers. Enrollment is on a first-come, first-served basis, and grade levels are based not on age, but on competencies. “We tell them that they are welcome, and then they tell us if they want to come,” explains Trombetta.

And standards are tough — grades are only “competent” and “not yet,” and you don’t get credit until you’re competent. Still, if you don’t pass the first time, you’re given the chance to keep trying. “We are a 24/7 kind of school,” Trombetta says.

Now, Childs is a freshman at Temple, studying film and media arts: “C.B. stood by me and helped me and pushed me to do the things that they knew I was capable of doing.”

Springside Chestnut Hill Academy

Location: Chestnut Hill | The Twist: Instilling entrepreneurship

Wharton may boast an international student body, but it may not need to recruit far thanks to this private school’s emphasis on entrepreneurship. In kindergarten, students work on business concepts; by fifth grade, they learn how to produce podcasts. Every 10th-grader is charged with creating a venture — from launching an app to founding a nonprofit — that solves a real-world problem. There are results, too. Rekha Dhillon-Richardson, now a sophomore at Brown, created the Girls Climate Summit, a gathering of hundreds of teens and leading climate experts. Alex Koscica reverse-engineered a less expensive epinephrine auto-injector (the EpiPen medical device). “This isn’t just a group of electives that kids take in entrepreneurship or design or tech,” says the program’s executive director, Edward Glassman. “It’s made for kids who are ready to change the world.” Grades: PreK–12.

The Haverford School

Location: Haverford | The Twist: Cultivating gender equality

The all-boys private Haverford School is taking our patriarchy- smashing era seriously by addressing the need for students to be equal partners with and advocates for girls through its upper-school human relationships elective. In partnership with Baldwin and Agnes Irwin, the program promotes meaningful conversations about how boys can take a proactive role in building safe, healthy relationships. Over the course of 10 weekly meetups, students explore cultural definitions of masculinity and femininity, gendered messages in the media, love, consent, microaggressions, feminism, rape culture, and many more topics that men (and women) of all ages could benefit from. Grades: PreK–12.

Published as “Ahead of the Class” in the October 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine. Read about a small group of Philadelphia reformers who want to change the fundamental vision of what a classroom should be.