At Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School in downtown Philadelphia, students can be found learning in a ballet studio, a bustling cafe, an aquaponics research lab, or a 3D design and animation studio.
Located blocks away from City Hall and the Liberty Bell, the 2,548-student school is part of String Theory Schools, a tuition-free, K–12 charter network with the aim of making learning real and relevant to students’ lives. The school was founded in 2000 based on the notion that students differentiate and diverge in their interests as they progress through school. Its name comes from a play on the school’s full integration of the arts (musical strings) and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
“In physics, string theory is a way to rationalize how you can have mutually exclusive worlds operating at the same time in perfect harmony,” explains chief innovation officer and cofounder Jason Corosanite. “In education, kids need some rigor and academics, but also things like innovation, joy, and creativity.”
Students at Philadelphia Performing Arts regularly interact with professional artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs to gain hands-on, real-world learning experiences. Teachers also wear a number of hats—as course designers, innovators, and collaborators in the advancement of learning. And students, rather than simply receiving instruction, help direct their own education through a myriad of personalized learning opportunities with a focus on technology.
The school believes that its dual focus on creative development and academic content will nurture students’ passions and prepare them for college and careers. The philosophy has yielded academic impacts and attracted parents to the school. Since 2015, students in third, fourth and fifth grades have shown steady improvement on statewide English language arts and math tests, and more than 5,000 students are on the waiting list for String Theory Schools’ enrollment lottery.
Majors, Mobile, and Making
Philadelphia Performing Arts’ three-tiered approach starts with early exposure to the arts and sciences. In addition to core academic classes, K–5 students attend seven extra 90-minute classes each week to explore vocal and instrumental music, classical ballet, French, creative writing, visual arts, and science and technology. By middle school, they choose a major from five key content areas—communication arts, theater, STEM, dance, and music— that they will focus on intently throughout their time at the school.
The school’s “mobile first” approach gives every student 24/7, one-to-one access on a mobile device, and they are encouraged to use iPad apps to enhance learning inside and outside the classroom. In a recent English and social studies joint project, for example, students took photos of monuments in downtown Philadelphia on their iPads and then, using a 3D modeling app, created their own digital versions.
Schools That Work
Teachers create custom online learning materials for students using iTunes U that they then make available for public consumption. To date, these materials have had more than 320,000 subscriptions from users in more than 15 countries.
“The vision of the school is to provide students with every opportunity possible, to open every door,” says Margery Covello, director of student life. “That means taking the learning out of the classroom, making it real, making it come alive, so that we’re really tapping into every student’s strength.”
To prepare students for their future in the 21st century, teachers at Philadelphia Performing Arts design projects that allow students to apply academic knowledge to current issues.
In Dr. Sherri Hanna’s biology class, high school students try to uncover if the fish they’re served at local sushi restaurants is really the species the restaurants claim it is. In this “citizen science” project, students collect and examine samples of white tuna and red snapper—some of the most commonly mislabeled fish—and use a portable thermocycler to test the fish’s DNA to see if it’s escolar and tilapia instead.
“DNA is double-stranded. Through the process we heat it up and it splits apart into two even strands, so we have the base pairs of one strand and then we test it with one strand of the escolar DNA,” explains Dominique, a 12th-grade student, of the test on white tuna. “If it matches together to make two whole strands, it’s positive for escolar.”
In over 50 percent of the tests, results came back positive for mislabeling, confirming articles and other research the students read.
“Can we sue them?” one student asks. “People have a right to know what they’re eating,” says another. The students, many of whom knew people who had dined at the restaurants or had done so themselves, quickly realized the ethical implications of the situation and questioned whether or not to report what they found.
According to Hanna, such inquiry and discussion places the acquisition of knowledge in a real-world context for students.
“I think the impact of having my students do citizen science and investigations that are connected to the real world is the knowledge sticks,” Hanna says. “They learn that knowledge is bigger than just academic classes.”
Running a Start-up
Venturing beyond the classroom means the real world also comes to the school.
Due to student interest in working with outside companies and building entrepreneurial skills, the school opened Cafe Vine, a student-run coffee shop that serves teachers and students every morning.
It’s more than just pouring lattes. All students who work at the cafe take a daily, hourlong elective class in which they learn how to run a business and the ins-and-outs of coffee production. In the course, students are taught how to manage inventory, budget, and schedule, and to discern the differences in coffee roasts by taste and smell. They sell their beans to two local coffee shops.
For most of the students, the job at Cafe Vine is their first, and it helps them build skills like responsibility, teamwork, and problem solving that they take with them when they leave the school. The opportunity also shows students that with a bit of persistence and hard work they can launch their visions into successful start-ups.
“It’s a great business model for high school students,” says Dana Corosanite, the student activities coordinator and cafe class teacher. “These are [skills] that will carry over and help them in whatever field they end up working in.”