Why kids are raving about 'cool' new W. Philly school

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Fifth-graders at Science Leadership Academy Middle School, a new project-based innovative middle school in West Philadelphia, try to figure out the combination to several locks using clues placed throughout the classroom.

A funny thing happened to Zaid Johnson when he entered fifth grade earlier this month: He started wanting to go to school.

Zaid, 11, is a hands-on learner, and the brand-new Science Leadership Academy Middle School (SLAMS) has been a revelation for him, the boy and his parents said - hands-on work centered on projects, opportunities to solve problems and expand the way he thinks.

"It's cool, a fun school, different," Zaid said.

Dignitaries converged on SLAMS on Tuesday, marking the formal opening of a school several years in the making. It's a middle school patterned after Science Leadership Academy, a nationally renowned, project-based Philadelphia School District high school opened 11 years ago.

The original SLA, in Center City, and its second high school, in West Philadelphia, have selective admission criteria. But SLAMS is different: a school for neighborhood students, no matter their learning needs or achievement levels.

Planning for SLAMS began in earnest four years ago, when the Philadelphia School Partnership awarded Powel Elementary a grant to explore expanding to a middle school. The nonprofit has given $1.8 million to fund the school's launch, and Drexel University has partnered with SLAMS, providing support.

The school is temporarily located in a Drexel building on Spring Garden Street. Eventually, a new facility is planned for fifth through eighth graders on land provided by Drexel and paid for not by the university or the School District but by other partners.

But all that was background noise Tuesday, when Dejah Williams, 10, stretched out in the hallway of her school, reading Rules, a novel by Cynthia Lord. She was just loving SLAMS, said Dejah, who came to the school from McMichael, in West Philadelphia. (Children who attended Powel make up the bulk of SLAMS students, but other seats are open through a blind citywide lottery.)

"My grandma said I needed to go to a better school," Dejah said. "It was a big deal when I got accepted - I was so excited."

She likes that her school is different: no desks in rows, Dejah said, and that sometimes, she, a few classmates, and their teacher plop down in the hallways with books, reading and answering questions.

"Every space is a learning space," teacher Hilary Hamilton said.

The school is small, just 88 students to begin, but will grow to 360 pupils eventually. It has five classroom teachers and one special-education teacher, a full-time counselor, and Timothy Boyle, the principal.

Boyle came to SLAMS after working as a classroom teacher at Chester Arthur Elementary in South Philadelphia. The inquiry-driven concept was a draw, but what sold him was that SLAMS was open to all.

That was a hook for Meredith Martin, a veteran teacher who left an 18-year career in Mantua Township schools in New Jersey to help start SLAMS.

Martin presided over a noisy, joyful, engaging Techsplorations class - students learning about digital security with a game modeled after the popular "escape the room" puzzles.

Her role, Martin said, is not to "tell students what to do, step-by-step. They're figuring it out by themselves. We're teaching them how to learn, developing problem solvers."

Boyle, the principal, peeked inside Martin's classroom and smiled.

"We want," he said, "to shift what happens in any fifth-grade classroom in the city."

kgraham@phillynews.com215-854-5146

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