A 1:1 Inquiry-Based High School Shares Its Vision

Ellen Ullman

Thanks to a new partnership with Dell, Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy will be rolling out Chromebooks to all of its students and serving as a model for other schools in the country.

SLA high school – a partnership between the School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute – has been one-to-one since it opened its doors in the fall of 2006. Now SLA has opened a second campus and is partnering with Dell to form a “Center of Excellence in Learning” in order to share SLA’s message and methods. “People from other schools have always visited us, but now we’ll be able to send our teachers out to spend a day or two at another school or district and teach them how to model our approach in their environment,” says SLA principal Chris Lehmann. “A partnership like this can only amplify what we’re doing.”

Lehmann is also excited about handing out Dell Chromebook 11 models to his staff and students, particularly because they’ve already been using Google Apps for Education. “We are deeply invested in Google Apps, and when you look at the ease of use and ease of management that Chromebooks offer, it makes a lot of sense for us,” he says. “Sustaining 1:1 is financially challenging, and it’s not just the cost of the machine – it’s the total cost of ownership. Students drop them and spill things, and then we have to get loaners. With Chromebooks, the loaner looks and works exactly like the machine they had. That makes a lot of sense in education.”

Spreading the Word About Inquiry-Based Learning

One of the ways SLA will help other schools adopt an inquiry-based approach is through the work of Diana Laufenberg, a former SLA teacher who helped open the second SLA high school this past fall. Lehmann, Laufenberg, and a supportive board of directors recently formed the nonprofit Inquiry Schools, an umbrella organization for the current and future SLA schools, and Laufenberg has begun packaging SLA’s curriculum so that others can understand how the school does what it does.

“We want to take the existing unit plans and adjust the language so they are more globally accessible and do 5-to-10-minute interviews with teachers about the unit and with students to talk about how they learned and what they created,” she says. Her goal is to have the written unit and about 20 minutes of video so teachers can see and hear how a unit works. “We want teachers to see the learning potential of the unit. Over the next three years we plan to build out as many SLA units as we can.”

Laufenberg is hoping to make it easy for teachers to upload their versions of the units so that the site is a work in progress that keeps evolving. “We’d love for a teacher to show, for instance, how she took a high school project and converted it to a middle school project. It’s all about creating a community for people to learn and share.”

In addition, thanks to the Dell partnership, SLA will now have the funding to send one of its teachers out to spend a day or two at another school district and model the SLA approach with teachers and administrators in their environment. “A lot of districts choose Dell because they want to work together and implement smart tech solutions,” says Lehmann. “I think Dell is planning on leveraging our partnership so when people say, ‘We want to see project-based learning,’ they can connect with us. Between those visits and our curricular units, we’re making what we do here more of a resource for the larger community.”

How a Personalized, Inquiry-Based Approach Transforms Learning

It’s hard for people who haven’t been to SLA to get what it’s like, but the key is to understand that the student is the primary agent in his or her learning. Students and teachers use their Chromebook (or any device) as a tool to allow inquiry-driven, project-based learning to happen. 

“When you combine a piece of powerful technology with the web and a pedagogy that focuses on student choice, student voice, flexibility, and creativity—and then you bend your curriculum around that—what you get is a whole different way of approaching content acquisition, skill development, and evidence of learning,” says Laufenberg. “The excitement that students exhibit when they learn something unforeseen, or stumble onto the perfect resource is the type of energy that all classrooms need to stay meaningful and relevant.” 

One example she shares is a unit she calls What if? History in which students are asked to think of and respond to a theoretical “what if” question that intrigues them (eg, What if Prohibition was not repealed? What if Britain and the U.S. did not have the Revolutionary War? What if Albert Einstein died before the Theory of Relativity was released?)

Students research answers to their questions and choose how to demonstrate what they’ve learned, playing to their strengths and interests and further individualizing the experience. They set their own paths for their self-guided work, collaborating when they need to. Then they present their work. “It’s not just about public speaking,” says Laufenberg. “We work on how to present something digitally, asking students if they’d want to click on the links of the websites they create or listen to the presentation they put together.” The goal is to communicate your intended message in a way that’s engaging, inviting, and pleasing to the audience. 

Another thing SLA does differently from traditional schools is that students aren’t ranked. Instead, there’s a leveled grading system; in other words, an A is an A. According to Laufenberg, this atmosphere discourages competition and leads to greater collaboration. Beyond that, class periods are longer, to allow for more flexible performance-based learning, and students in the upper grades have more flexible schedules to allow for dual enrollment in area universities or internships of various sorts. 

SLA and Philadelphia

Beyond providing an outstanding public school education to an ethnically diverse group of students, the Science Leadership Academy has, from the start, been designed as a model and resource for other schools in Philadelphia and beyond – opening its doors to anyone who wants to visit. Lately, that’s included more local leaders, a fact that thrills Lehmann and the rest of the team. The school has hosted Educon, an innovation conference about the future of schools, for seven years, and this year’s event in January boasted the largest group of Philadelphia attendees yet. “Teachers looking to do something innovative can connect with others in the city, which will have a positive net effect for the district,” says Laufenberg. 

Now that SLA is switching from Apple devices to Chromebooks, a handful of schools have reached out to find out more about them. The district is excited to see more schools moving in a 1:1 direction and the schools are pleased to be able to go to SLA for help. Throughout the year, SLA teachers lead working groups as well as Edcamps. Laufenberg says that collaborating with other teachers helps SLA teachers improve. “When we can invite other teachers in it’s because we believe that the strength of networks and teacher groups supporting and working with each other is the way to build a better Philadelphia.” 

Using Chromebooks

Overall, according to Lehman and Laufenberg, the Chromebooks have been working out well. Right now, only the ninth grade is using them, as the plan is to roll out one grade level at a time. Everyone likes the fact that they are light, sturdy, solid, and easy to use – not to mention the fantastic battery life. The IT staff appreciates how easy Chromebooks are to maintain; in most cases, one need only hit restart and the problem is solved.

There have been a few challenges, as well. For example, they have had to solve some printing issues and to find a video-editing tool to replace iMovie. In true SLA fashion, however, the teachers asked the students to find video editors in the Chrome store or invited them to locate and evaluate new tools.  

The ninth-grade teachers are transitioning from the devices they’ve been using for years, but the 10th-grade teachers will benefit next year when they make the switch because their students will have had a year of working in the Chrome environment. “It’s been good to problem solve some of the different ways Chrome does things and figure it out as a staff,” says Laufenberg. In the spirit of collaboration, SLA has reached out to schools that have been using Chromebooks for a while and received a lot of support and advice.

At A Glance

A partnership high school between the School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute, SLA is an inquiry-driven, project-based high school focused on 21st century learning. It opened in September 2006. 

In September 2013, a second SLA opened in Philadelphia.

The two schools serve a total of 750 students. SLA pupil-teacher ratio is 20:1, and the percentage of minority students is 67%. More than 95% of graduates pursued some form of post-secondary education.

SLA has won many awards, accolades, and honors, including: Three years of Gates Millenium Scholars; America’s Most Amazing Schools; featured in Digital Media: New Learners of the 21st Century; and featured in White House Event on High Tech Classrooms.


Dell Chromebook 11 models for all students in grades 9-12.

Learn More

Science Leadership Academy Website

Article: Dell and the Science Leadership Academy Team up to Support Excellence

Article: SLA Opens Center of Excellence

Video: Innovation in Teaching & Learning Think Tank

EduCon Website

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