Teaching the Leaders of Tomorrow

Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.

The first time that I looked at the Whitehouse.gov website and read about Champions of Change I knew immediately that I would nominate Chris Lehmann for this recognition. "Out-innovate, out-educate, out-build" - he is doing all three. Mr. Lehmann is the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, an innovative public high school in Philadelphia. Developed in partnership with The Franklin Institute science museum, the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) is a progressive science and technology high school founded in 2006. Students at SLA learn in an inquiry-driven, project based environment where collaboration is expected and the core values of "inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection" guide learning in every discipline. SLA is a 1:1 laptop school and the first urban high school to be named an Apple Distinguished School.

When visitors enter the Science Leadership Academy they are met with open, welcoming faces and students who hold doors open for each other and for visitors. A visitor walking past Mr Lehmann's office will usually see the door wide open to the busy hallway and several students 'hanging out' on the sofa across from his desk. Walk into any classroom and see students engaged in their work - clustered in small groups around their laptops, presenting recent learning to their classmates, or passionately debating their points of view - all with an equally engaged and committed teacher circulating and guiding their learning. One afternoon a week, the students are not at school. They are scattered through the city at internships, exploring the world of work and formulating ideas about where their own future careers might take them. At the same time, their teachers are at school collaborating and planning further innovations to the curriculum.

These lucky students are as diverse as Philadelphia itself, coming from each of its 74 zip codes. 49% are African-American, 36% Caucasian,  7% Asian, 7% Hispanic and 1% of other ethnicities. Half are economically disadvantaged and many will be the first in their families to attend college. These students are unafraid to take risks in their learning; mistakes, they are taught, are a part of learning. They can access information from many sources and evaluate those sources.  Their skills and engagement were highlighted in the 2011 PBS documentary Digital Media: New Learners for the 21st Century. They have won debate competitions, young playwrights awards, spoken word poetry contests and science fairs. They are entrepreneurs, volunteers, musicians and community activists who believe in the power of their own voices to make the world a better place. They are creative problem-solvers and critical thinkers who will be the leaders of tomorrow. Over 90% of the first two graduating classes went straight to college, having been granted over $7 million in merit-based financial aid.

Mr. Lehmann's contribution extends far beyond this one amazing community of learners. Chris speaks at education conferences all over the world, including the conference run by SLA, Educon. At Educon, hundreds of educators meet every year to collaborate and learn from one another about innovations in progressive education and how technology can be used in the classroom to advance learning. Hundreds more participate online through live-streamed sessions. Other SLA teachers speak nationally or share blogs that start conversations that are likely to impact learners all over the country and the world. I nominated Principal Lehmann because I believe that he and the Science Leadership Academy community will be agents for change in how we educate students everywhere.

LIsa Heller nominated Chris Lehmann to be a Champion of Change. Chris Lehmann is the founding principal of the award- winning Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.

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