Something funny happened when, in 1998, Simon Hauger started an after-school program for his West Philadelphia High math and science students. “The kids did exceptionally well,” he says. “And kids from our school weren’t supposed to do exceptionally well.” In a city with a graduation rate near 50 percent, the program grew, and so did the students’ ambitions; by 2000 they were entering a vehicle of their own design in an international hybrid-electric-car competition. In 2002 they won—beating out teams from MIT and private corporations. Subsequent models drew national media attention, and an invitation for four of Hauger’s students to meet President Obama at the White House.
Hauger couldn’t help but notice that his students were learning far more after school than during school, so in 2004 he tried to shift some of his successful program back into the classroom, where he could reach more students. He ran straight into the Philadelphia school board, with what he says are narrow views of what constitutes a proper curriculum. “At that point,” Hauger says, “I knew I needed to start a school.”
Seven years later, it’s here: the Sustainability Workshop, a pilot program for 30 Philadelphia high-school seniors, had its first day of classes Sept. 6. The boutique school follows the “project-based learning” model made popular by San Diego’s High Tech High and others around the country, where conventional classes are replaced with long, interdisciplinary exercises to solve real-world problems, like designing a solar charging station or writing energy-efficiency legislation. More engaged students, the thinking goes, learn deeply and retain knowledge longer. And the teens can supplement their project learning with classes at nearby Drexel University.
Hauger’s school has private backers and gets its workspace, a mansion in the city’s Navy Yard, through the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster, which uses $129 million in federal funding to spur green-technology research. Hauger has plans to expand the workshop into a publicly funded charter school by 2013.