Innovation High

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pro_CHRISlehmannTEDxClass of ’93 | Chris Lehmann C’93 steps out of the principal’s office at Science Leadership Academy wearing a T-shirt, athletic shorts, and no shoes. It’s only 9 a.m. on a September school day, but the morning has already been unusually hectic for the school’s founding principal, who didn’t get the chance to change into “adult gear” after coaching SLA’s ultimate-frisbee team on account of having to race home to dig an important piece of mail out of his recycling bin.

In some ways, Lehmann’s casual outfit is the perfect embodiment of the ideals he stresses at Science Leadership Academy, the well-regarded magnet public high school at 22nd and Arch streets in Philadelphia. A partner of the nearby Franklin Institute, SLA offers a unique alternative to the traditional high school, employing what Lehmann calls a “more modern, more inquiry-driven, more project-based, more caring approach to education.”

It all starts at the top.

“I think I’m probably not your average principal, right down to how we built this office and how we built the main office, which was done in such a way that it’s not an off-limits place for kids,” he says—whereupon, almost on cue, a student walks through his wide-open door. “I wanted the principal’s office to be a place where people wanted to go—not a place where people went when they were in trouble.”

That idea of fostering an open community in the school he founded nine years ago is just one of the many reasons Lehmann won the 2014 Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education, a prestigious national award that honors innovators in the field. When he first found out about the award, which he calls “about as high an educational honor as there is,” he thought he was getting a prank call. Even after accepting the $50,000 Rising Star Prize from the McGraw Hill Financial Research Foundation during a ceremony at the New York Public Library in September, it was still hard for him to believe. A few days later, he admits, he “got a little overwhelmed by it all.”

At this point, though, Lehmann should be used to the national spotlight. Because of the school’s emphasis on, per the McGraw Prize press release, “college preparation and entrepreneurship through a technology-rich, inquiry-driven curriculum that is enhanced by a 1:1 laptop program,” Science Leadership Academy has been featured in commercials and been visited by celebrities such as Bill Gates. Even President Barack Obama came to the Franklin Institute to speak to SLA’s 2012 graduating class.

“We joke around that with all the incredible things that have happened around here, it’s like, ‘OK, I guess this is the new normal for us,’” Lehmann says. “We kind of treat all of that with the incredulousness I think it deserves.”

Lehmann, a Philly-area native, never thought any of this was possible when he first took a meeting with the Franklin Institute a decade ago, armed only with some notes on what he thought a school could be, nine years of experience teaching English in New York City’s public-school system, and a healthy excitement over the fact that the School District of Philadelphia was planning to open 27 new small schools. The meeting got off to an inauspicious start when he was told he had just five minutes to make his case to partner with a science museum. But Lehmann, an English major at Penn, confidently declared that the Franklin Institute didn’t want to run a science high school but rather a well-rounded, hands-on high school “where everything done is based on the ethos and values of the museum.”

“She said, ‘Keep talking,’” Lehmann recalls. “And five minutes turned into two-and-a-half hours.” Which, in turn, “have turned into 10 years.”

Though the Franklin Institute has been “the most amazing partner you could ever ask for,” launching a school from the ground up was still an “insane” process that required an “incredible leap of faith” by the parents who agreed to send their kids to a place that was then nothing more than an idea, he says.

“I knew there were a million reasons why people didn’t think this could succeed,” he adds. “But I remember thinking that if I could just work hard enough and be as thoughtful as I could, that would be our best chance.”

The school has certainly succeeded, though not without its share of challenges. Like every other public school in Philly, SLA has been hampered by the district’s ongoing financial crisis, which has led to severe financial budget cuts. It has “weathered the storm as well as anyone can expect,” Lehmann says, “but it’s exhausting.”

Even so, SLA has expanded its reach, opening a new campus in the Wynnefield section of Philadelphia last year. And in the near future, Lehmann hopes to build a new middle school and partner with a nearby elementary school, while still “taking the time to continue to innovate in a profoundly resource-challenged environment.”

“I think you have to be hopeful,” Lehmann says, “if for no other reason than the kids show up every day. They deserve that hope.”

—Dave Zeitlin C’03

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