The Workshop School grew out of a desire to design a school from the ground up focused on real world problem solving. Our discussion of what that might look like began nearly a decade ago. Since then, we have become convinced of two things. First, doing authentic work in a traditional high school setting is very difficult. There is a tendency to try and make the work fit into school structure (bell schedules, grade levels, subject areas). We wanted to do it the other way around.
Second, students are capable of remarkable growth when presented with meaningful challenges. This belief comes from over a decade of experience blending project-based learning with green technology in an urban high school. Founded in 1998 as a summer project, the West Philadelphia High School EVX team has spent the more than a decade designing, building, and racing alternative energy vehicles. The team won the Tour de Sol, the nation’s largest alternative energy vehicle race, three times and reached the semi-finals of the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE competition, outperforming elite universities and well-funded private companies. In the spring of 2011, they won the Green Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International in New York, where their sports car achieved over 100 miles per gallon. The team also won the Clean Energy division of Conrad Foundation’s Spirit of Innovation Awards, an international competition that challenges high school students to create innovative products using science technology and entrepreneurship to solve real world 21stcentury problems. Outcomes for individual students are no less impressive. Over the past 13 years, every senior that has graduated while part of the team—about 50 in all—has matriculated into some form of post-secondary education.
Drawing in lessons from the EVX program, in 2011 we launched the Sustainability Workshop (SW), a two-year pilot project operating as an alternative senior year program and serving roughly 30 students per year. Students at SW developed academic skills by working on real world problems related to sustainability and green technology. These problems drove the school’s organization and curriculum. Students atended SW full-time, but remained on enrolled at their home high schools. Through their project work, they earned course credits equivalent to what they would receive attending their home high school for the year.
The SW pilot project allowed us to spend two years refining our instructional model and thinking about how to design schools to support it at scale. It has also yielded compelling evidence that our model works. One hundred percent of our seniors graduated on time, three quarters completed at least of college course for credit during their senior year, and over 90 percent were accepted into at least one college or university.”