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March 2014

Building 21 Reimagines Secondary Schooling

Engaging Philadelphia teens in competency-based learning


When Kerri Lynch got the news that her daughter was accepted by Building 21, she couldn’t contain her elation. “I was screaming in her ear,” she said of the moment school co-founder Laura Shubilla notified her by phone.

Lynch’s 14-year-old daughter had experienced a rocky year at her charter school and “I’d already decided I was going to home-school her”— until she heard about Building 21.

As a member of the school’s first class of 150 ninth graders in the fall of 2014, she’ll experience a novel approach to urban high school education. Shubilla and co-founder Chip Linehan eschewed traditional teaching methods for a curriculum customized to each student’s needs, interests and abilities. The students will learn at their own pace in a “competency-based” system which will require evidence of actual mastery instead of just a grade.

Failure will be forestalled by engaging the students, as teacher Andre Landon explained at a parent forum. If math is a stumbling block, for instance, he’ll determine what the students’ interests are. “Once I find out what they’re into, I can find a way to relate numbers to it,” Landon said.

Students will be liberated from back-to-back lectures and a school day confined to the building. They’ll be assigned to one of three groups of 50 students with three teachers each and they’ll create projects, work on computers, get involved with their neighborhood, and go off-campus to learn real world skills from community partners.

Imagine being taught to cook by pioneer chef Marc Vetri, who’s already committed to the project; or forming an investment club with a financial planner whose firm may fund the students’ stock portfolio.

Lynch believes this innovative and dynamic approach to education is just what her daughter needs. And even her daughter seemed impressed after a parents’ forum. “I like it,” she said.

Illustration by Russell Edling