Thursday, January 29, 2015

From English to science to Twitter

Chris Lehmann, principal of Science Leadership Academy, received the Harold McGraw Prize in Education. ( MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer ) July 31, 2014
Chris Lehmann, principal of Science Leadership Academy, received the Harold McGraw Prize in Education. ( MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer ) July 31, 2014

CHRIS LEHMANN and the school he founded in 2006, the Science Leadership Academy, have had their share of accolades and honors through the years. The public magnet high school, a partnership between the Philadelphia School District and the Franklin Institute, has been recognized by Ladies' Home Journal as one of the "Ten Most Amazing Schools" in the country and has been named an Apple Distinguished School various times.

And most recently, Lehmann, 43, a Yardley native who started out as an English teacher in New York City, was bestowed in July with a Nobel Prize of sorts. The Twitter enthusiast was one of three educators awarded the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education, the industry's equivalent to the Nobel.

The organization that selects the honorees, the McGraw Hill Financial Research Foundation, said this year that it chose to honor innovators "who have found ways to narrow a particular achievement gap in a broadly replicable manner."

Lehmann was awarded the Rising Star Prize and the jury noted that the academy "tackles the achievement gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects for highly qualified minority students," among other achievements. Regina Medina met with Lehmann, whose McGraw Prize includes a $50,000 award that will be presented Sept. 23 in New York, in his academy office.

Q What were you like at Pennsbury High School?

I was a geek. I definitely loved learning. I don't know if it was as meaningful as I would like it to have been but it was perfectly fine. But I believed then, and certainly believe now, that school should be more than that. Thus, SLA.

Q And the Franklin Institute. How did you hook them into the idea of a partnership with a school that didn't exist yet?

I went over and I had this little folder with my resume and the one-page [pitch]. It's an amazingly intimidating place. This woman comes to the door - incredibly intimidating woman - she looked at me over her glasses and she said, "You have five minutes." So I handed her the packet and she looks at my resume and says, "What is an English teacher doing wanting to run a science high school?" And I said, "Well, the Franklin Institute doesn't just want to run a science high school." She said, "Excuse me?" I said, "If you run a science high school you'll get great science teachers but every other teacher will feel like second-class citizens. What the Franklin Institute wants to do is run an inquiry-driven high school where the ethos of this museum lives and breathes in every single class and it's about the way we learn." She said, "Keep talking."

Q You're obviously very focused on the sciences, particularly technology. What's its role in education?

I see it as a profoundly democratizing force in schools when used well. The challenge with technology is that any tool is a weapon if you hold it right and it can be used to do really bad things in schools as well. To me, the saddest thing about technology is when schools are not using technology as anything but a more efficient multiple-choice test tool or a more efficient lecture. To me, the promise of technology is that it unlocks the world for kids.

Q So, the award comes with $50,000. How will you use the gift?

I've got mold in my basement [chuckles]. I've got two young kids [Jakob and Theo] whose college fund isn't as big as it needs to be. It's also important to recognize the people who got you there and we'll recognize them as well.

Q It's no secret you're a feverish Twitter user. What do you like about Twitter?

The idea that we can connect with people, that we can connect to ideas, that we can be aware of the world again, that it is a democratizing way to disseminate information. Social media at its best is incredibly powerful and I think has, in many respects, changed the way a lot of us think about our world. We've also seen the worst of what we are as a world come out through social media. At its best, it has opened up the way we think about the world. You only need to look at the events of this week at Ferguson and Missouri. It's social media that pushed traditional media to focus on what was happening there.

Q You have an impressive 25,000 followers. How'd you do that?

I have no idea. I guess people think I might have something to say.

Q What are the chances

you'll be tweeting from the McGraw ceremony?

You can pretty much guarantee that.


On Twitter: @ReginaMedina










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