Tonight, special correspondent for education John Merrow looks at what the city schools are doing to fight back.GWEN IFILL: The number of students fleeing Philadelphia’s troubled neighborhood schools has almost tripled in the past decade. This year, 70,000 students are choosing charter schools instead.

JOHN MERROW: Philadelphia cannot force students to attend their neighborhood schools, so the system is trying to make them more appealing by copying other successful schools, like Science Leadership Academy.

STUDENT: It makes noise. So, we said that it teaches, like, cause and effect.

JOHN MERROW: This school relies on project-based learning. Students work in teams doing real-world research. These seniors are exploring how a baby’s brain develops by designing toys for them.

MAN: You will need to research what’s going on in the brain of an 8-to-12-month-old.

JOHN MERROW: Test scores at this public school are among the highest in the city, but it is not open to everyone. It sets admission standards and rejects nine out of every 10 applicants.

Philadelphia’s challenge, can an innovative curriculum be successful in schools that accept all comers and all skill levels?

WILLIAM HITE, Superintendent, The School District of Philadelphia: We believe it can. And we believe it can because it has.

JOHN MERROW: William Hite, Philadelphia’s superintendent, acknowledges the obstacles and challenges, including finding teachers and principals who are willing to try something new. And, he says, that’s not all.

WILLIAM HITE: One additional obstacle is a true belief that all children can succeed.

JOHN MERROW: Who doesn’t believe these kids can learn?

WILLIAM HITE: I think some of the adults who are working with them, many — some of the community members who are in, some of the individuals who are leading special admit schools.

JOHN MERROW: The superintendent said there are people in Philadelphia who do not believe that kids like this are capable of learning.

NEIL GEYETTE, Principal, U School: That’s exactly right. And that’s exactly the belief. These young people themselves don’t believe that they can do it. And so something is happening where young people aren’t being given opportunities and being trusted to demonstrate success.

JOHN MERROW: I told some of principal Geyette’s students what the adults were saying.

How does that make you feel, that statement?

JADE SNAITH: I feel offended. I feel like they’re belittling me as a person. They say kids like you don’t have the ability to learn. And that’s basically discouraging me, instead of encouraging me, to want to fight and go to college, and do things that kids like us don’t do.

JOHN MERROW: These ninth graders have an opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong. They’re now attending the U School, a neighborhood no-admission-test high school that’s following an innovative path.

STUDENT: I’m from a loving mother and a ghost of a father.

STUDENT: I am colored skin. I am sick and I am hungry.

JOHN MERROW: The U School is one of three innovative public schools that opened this fall. Here, everything is project-based. In English class, students wrote poems about themselves and their world. Now they are turning their poems into video presentations.

SAM REED, Teacher: You need to decide who’s going to be the producer.

JOHN MERROW: Teacher Sam Reed has high hopes and big plans for his students.

SAM REED: You’re like, what are the problems here at our school, what are problems in the community at large, and how do we highlight those, those problems through creating blogs, through creating podcasts, through creating visual infographics?

JOHN MERROW: These students weren’t exactly beating down the doors to try project-based learning.

STUDENT: This was kind of my backup plan to come here.

STUDENT: I could have went to my neighborhood school, but my mom wanted me to come here.

JOHN MERROW: Once they got here, students found something else that made the U School different.

JADE SNAITH: Everybody learns at their own pace. So if I’m quicker than Chauncey, I will be able to keep going, instead of waiting for him to come to my level, or vice versa.

DESTINY PEDRACA: My friends, they want to come. They want to join this school.


DESTINY PEDRACA: Because they like how we learn. They like that we get to learn at our own pace.

JOHN MERROW: Class projects are divided into a series of goals, entered on the school’s computer network. Each time a student achieves a goal, the teacher grades the work, and the student moves on to the next. Programs like this one track student progress.

JADE SNAITH: You have to make a goal plan. So it will say, I want to get task one through three done in this time span, and you have to keep up with it.

JOHN MERROW: Principal Neil Geyette and his teachers strive to make U School a nurturing environment. When kids misbehave, instead of punishments being handed out, teachers and students come together to explore what went wrong and what can be done to prevent future occurrences.

DESTINY PEDRACA: So let’s say I had a bad day. We can talk, and they can help me out with that. So it’s, like, a caring community.

JOHN MERROW: A caring community?

DESTINY PEDRACA: Yes, like, we all care. We don’t leave anybody behind.

JOHN MERROW: Contrast that approach with the message that greets students at this neighborhood school every morning: “Unexcused absences are unlawful, punishable by a ride to the truancy center.”

Principal Geyette knows from experience that threatening kids does not work.

NEIL GEYETTE: They’re removed. They come back. The teacher and the student never have a conversation about it, and everybody pretends like it doesn’t happen, right? And so the step — the first step for us was to get young people to own — try to get — start to get young people to own what they’re doing.

JOHN MERROW: Ownership means taking responsibility for what they’re doing. Principal Geyette’s second step? Give students a chance to show who they are and what they can do — in their video presentations, for example.

STUDENT: We are from mouth-watering cheese steaks, creamy milk shakes, and salty fries.

STUDENT: We are from strong single mothers. We are from the U School, where my fellow classmates want to become something great.

JOHN MERROW: Superintendent Hite is giving his innovative schools five years to make a go of it, and he wants to open more every year. However, keeping up with charter schools will be a challenge. More than 40 organizations have applied to open new charter schools in Philadelphia next year.

John Merrow