Students Ask Big Questions At Science Leadership Academy

Philadelphia is home to a high school that is transforming the opportunity set for 500 urban students in an unremarkable converted office buildings located downtown.

Senior Wynn Geary introduced himself as an industrial designer and urban farmer. My other tour guide, Amani Bey, is headed to Davidson to study political economics.

They explained the inquiry based approach at Science Leadership Academy (SLA). They challenged me to look for evidence of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection in every class. In a dozen classrooms we saw students working in teams, creating, analyzing, and presenting.


Founding principal Chris Lehmann launched SLA in 2006 after almost a decade at The Beacon School. He started his career as a Research Analyst for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, so he understands the alternative to educational success.

Lehman had a year to plan the new school. Making use of the former district office was a particular puzzle. While dated, the building offers generous sized classrooms. Biology and chemistry are taught in an integrated block in a classroom large enough to include a web lab.


The magnet school attracts students from all metro zip codes, including more than 60 middle schools.

SLA is a partnership high school between the School District of Philadelphia and a local science center, The Franklin Institute.

The project-based curriculum asks students to consider, “How do we learn?” “What can we create?” “What does it mean to lead?”

Students meet with an an advisor twice weekly for an hour. Advisors monitor academic progress, help plan projects, internships and support the college application process.

On students with special needs, Lehmann describes an, “Ethic of care,” at SLA. He said, “Every student deserves an individual education plan.” He thinks their study skills class is important for helping every student find a way to be academically successful. Every advisor has a couple students with special needs making them a co-caseworker and more skilled at differentiating across the curriculum.

Every student completes a capstone project that involves giving back to the community. Some conduct research, some provide a service, and some create art.

Seniors take economics and an English class focused on the art of storytelling. We observed a class studying creation stories from different cultures.


SLA uses the Canvas learning platform. They switched from Macs to more affordable Chromebooks two years ago. The 1:1 school encourages students laptop use when and where appropriate in support of inquiry and creation.

Impact at scale. Because there are 900 applicants for 120 freshman seats, Lehmann and his team opened a second campus in west Philadelphia.

Two years ago Lehmann and Diana Laufenberg launched Inquiry Schools to work with communities nationwide to develop inquiry-driven, project-based schools. Check out their

Summer Institute to help teachers learn how to do inquiry-based teaching.

For more see:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.