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This Philly school got White House attention for its innovative model. Now, its existence is threatened.

Kristen A. Graham, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

The Workshop School pioneered a model so innovative that its students and teachers have twice been honored at the White House. But the West Philadelphia public school’s fortunes have shifted in recent years.

“Now, we’re in a battle for our lives,” said Simon Hauger, a Workshop School founder.

Workshop’s model is unchanged; its students still learn primarily through interdisciplinary projects by solving real-world problems: car trouble, water quality, food insecurity. It is made up mostly of students of color who come from economically disadvantaged families, and continues to be competency and skills-based, not content-based or test driven.

What has changed is the way the Philadelphia School District admits students to its 38 magnet and citywide schools. In an effort to be more equitable, the district moved to a centralized lottery three years ago and away from giving principals say-so in who comes into their programs.

The result? A mismatch between its incoming students and the school, and a building bursting at the seams.

A school district spokesperson did not address Workshop officials’ concerns about their ability to adequately serve the students assigned to them, but did say the number of students enrolled is based on historical data.


‘We’re doing it much more poorly’

The Workshop’s building was never meant to hold an entire school — the 31,000-square-foot, two-story structure on Hanson Street once housed the former West Philadelphia High automotive annex. After two years as an alternative senior-year project, Workshop became a full-fledged school and moved into its current space, with the promise of moving elsewhere eventually.

But facilities are a perpetual problem in the underfunded district, and a new spot never materialized.

After changes to the district’s admissions policy, Workshop has been forced to take more students than officials say the small building can handle.


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