ALEC PATTON: If you work in a school, you know that school just doesn’t work for some kids. One of those kids growing up in Princeton, New Jersey was Wagner Marseille.
WAGNER MARSEILLE: What I found in my school experience in Princeton Regional Schools was the idea that because I learned differently, because I didn’t fit into that mold that oftentimes a significant number of Princeton students fit into, I need to find other ways to get engaged, other ways to show my teachers that I understood, besides a standardized test, and oftentimes that was the predominant way of doing that.
I worked well in groups but rarely had an opportunity to work in groups. I work really well when there’s a deep question and we have to wrestle with it but I didn’t have that. So going through the system, I thought to myself, when I have the opportunity, I’m going to try to provide different ways in which students can demonstrate their mastery.
ALEC PATTON: Now, don’t worry too much about Wagner Marseille, his experience in school didn’t hold him back. He became an Olympic hurdler, 110 meters in Atlanta in 1996, he represented Haiti. Then he went into finance, which he hated.
WAGNER MARSEILLE: I was in a cubicle and I was making cold calls as I was studying for my series seven. No one talked to you. So I was struggling saying, hey, guys, can you help me understand how do I get a conversation before they hang up on me? Because when I say, hello, I’m from bla– click, all right? And they were like, oh, you’re on your own buddy.
And I’m like, whoa, this is about the company, it’s about us working together. They’re like, nah, that’s not the way it works here, everyone for themselves. And it’s the first job I ever quit. And I’m sitting at home, I have a degree.
My dad is looking at me like, why are you moving back here? And a friend of mine who was a teacher said, why don’t you come and be a substitute? I said, are you crazy? I know what kids do to substitutes, right? They take full advantage of substitutes. And I was all those kids.
ALEC PATTON: But against his better judgment, he got a substitute teacher certification then got a job as a teacher’s aide in an alternative school for students with severe learning disabilities and students who were going through the criminal justice system. That’s where he found his vocation.
WAGNER MARSEILLE: I became really connected with a student, Ben, who I was surprised, based on his lifestyle and what he was experiencing at home and how many times he’s been incarcerated, that he actually came to school.
From that moment, I realized that I want to work with children. I think I can make a difference. And my high school principal found out that I was in town and asked me to come back to Princeton High, and that’s how it started.
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ALEC PATTON: This is High Tech High Unboxed. I’m Alec Patton. Wagner Marseille went on to get a PhD in Educational Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. Then in 2015, he became Superintendent of Cheltenham, a school district in Pennsylvania just outside Philadelphia. We’re making a series about Cheltenham to find out what happens when a kid who school didn’t work for grows up and gets to run a school district.
Spoiler, it’s project-based learning. But while a lot of school systems are experimenting with project-based learning, few have committed to it the way that Cheltenham has. Their high school project-based learning program or PBL program is a four hour interdisciplinary block that runs from 7:30 to 11:30 AM, five days a week.
The program is in its third year and now includes a middle school program, so it runs all the way from seventh to 11th grade. And Cheltenham High School isn’t a charter school, it’s a local public high school. Not only that, but it’s been around since 1884. Today it has 1,300 students. Alumni include the baseball player Reggie Jackson, jazz musicians Michael and Randy Brecker, and the prime minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu.
In fact, outside the main office, there’s a wall covered in photos of famous graduates and the photos go on for a very long way. Now, I don’t want to engage in stereotypes but 135-year-old public high schools with a wall of fame are not generally known for being open to innovation. So why is Cheltenham doing this? To understand, that we’re going to go back to 2015 when Dr. Marseille was a finalist for the superintendent job.
He met with a group of 10 high school students. A local newspaper, The Cheltenham Citizens’ Call wrote an article that referenced this meeting. The article’s actually hanging up in Dr. Marseille’s office. So I asked him about something I read in it that I didn’t understand.
I was just reading up here that a student said to you, “Dr. Marseille, there are conversations in this community that people are scared to have. If we’re going to be as great as we once were, we can’t be afraid of those conversations.” What was that student talking about?
WAGNER MARSEILLE: That student was really aware of the inequitable outcomes that existed in Cheltenham. A very high achieving student, the system in which it was designed worked extremely well for that student. But that particular student had a social justice lens to ask that question about, how about the other?
And what he saw in the schools was this core group of kids tend to do extremely well and there’s a model that supports them, and another classification of students that tend to not do as well. So that student wanted to make sure that there was administration who wanted to have courageous conversations, those courageous conversations were specifically about the inequities that existed which are drawn on racial lines in this community.
ALEC PATTON: Charlene Collins, Cheltenham’s Director of Secondary Education was one of the first people Dr. Marseille hired. She described what she found in Cheltenham more bluntly.
CHARLENE COLLINS: When I first came here, kids told me there was two types of education. And I’m like, what do you mean? Like, this one type, this is for a certain group of students and then there’s an education everybody else gets. And at that time I think we were at 55% African-American, 35% White, and then everything else.
So when I toured the high school for the first time and while classes were in session, I went by a class and saw no students of color, I was like, how is that possible? That just doesn’t work out.
And then I’m like, what class is this that this is the case? And then we started to take off some of the layers and we realized that it was systemic. We would accelerate kids based on their third grade, their test scores and that would basically determine whether or not you got to AP calc in high school. So the inequity was great.
ALEC PATTON: Dr. Marseille knew he had to change this. And he knew from personal experience that traditional education doesn’t work for a lot of kids. Then he met Colin McCarthy.
WAGNER MARSEILLE: Simultaneously as I came into the district trying to think differently, Colin McCarthy comes and schedules a meeting with me. I don’t know who Colin McCarthy is. I was told by the principal at this time Colin McCarthy is a great supporter of Cheltenham, he’s really innovative, he wants to do things differently. I hear you want to do things differently since the short time you’ve been here, you talk about project-based learning, he talks about project-based learning, I think you two should meet.
ALEC PATTON: OK, so who is Colin Mccarthy? He’s a guy who’s had the good fortune to start his teaching career right at the start of what might be Philadelphia’s most radical educational experiment of modern times.
COLIN MCCARTHY: I mean, I clap my teeth at the sustainability workshop.
ALEC PATTON: The sustainability workshop was a school of 28 high school seniors who spent the school day doing projects like designing, building, and testing electric bicycles and making blueprints for houses built from disused shipping containers, which they submitted to a national architectural competition. It was life changing for the students, it was life changing for Colin too.
COLIN MCCARTHY: Boom, I landed right into this incredible experience of authentic learning and deep engagement, and just seeing these students become actualized and invested in the work that they were doing.
And you saw these people who came in just very skeptical at the entire educational system and what their prospects were for the future, and halfway through the year, they’re unbelievably engaged in their work and doing these fantastic projects. And by the end, they’re like, give me more school. And, of course, the logical thing was to continue on in college. And a great many of them did and have graduated, et cetera.
It was a super rewarding experience but it forever colored my view of education because when I then went on to teach writing to sixth graders, that was great but in the back of my mind all I kept thinking about was these unbelievable experiences and transformations I had witnessed in a project-based learning environment. And that’s just really hard to duplicate if the school is not set up to create that kind of culture.
ALEC PATTON: Lots of teachers get disillusioned but Collin’s father ran a charitable foundation.
COLIN MCCARTHY: My father came to me and he had set up a foundation, The Avalon Foundation, 30 some years ago. And over the course of those 30 years, he’d been giving mostly to education. And he said, well, look, now you have a master’s degree in education, you’ve been a teacher, you know more than me, why don’t you run the foundation?
And so we started by giving $25,000 grants here and there to after school programs but it just felt like throwing pebbles into an ocean. It was rewarding but I just didn’t see any big change coming. And then I literally got an idea. I had heard this progressive superintendent had come to work at Cheltenham, which was physically across the street from where I got my master of arts and education.
And the idea just popped in my head. I went to my father I said, hey, why don’t we pitch them the idea of bringing a project-based learning program to a public high school. And make it a substantial program where we have a cohort of teachers, a cohort of students, and they spend at least part of their day in this very special environment of the culture that is created when high quality project-based learning is being taught.
One thing I had learned was that you really we need time in the day if you’re going to do quality project-based learning, you really need time to develop a different culture than is found in most comprehensive high schools. And I went in and met with Dr. Marseille, Wagner Marseille. We hit it off immediately.
ALEC PATTON: The feeling was mutual.
WAGNER MARSEILLE: I fell in love with the fact that he has roots here, he student taught here, he saw the abundant potential that Cheltenham had or has. And when we started talking about his understanding of project-based learning. I’m like, yes, that’s it, that’s what I’ve been thinking about. How do we work together and make this happen?
COLIN MCCARTHY: We quickly agreed to try to start something really special at Cheltenham.
ALEC PATTON: So Cheltenham’s vision for a new way of being a school came from Dr. Marseille’s frustration with his own education, from the need to do better by Cheltenham students and from Colin McCarthy’s year with a sustainability workshop. But there’s one more piece and it’s a little bit awkward to talk about because the final piece is my employer, High Tech High.
First of all, to be clear, we’re working with Cheltenham’s school district and the Avalon Foundation and we’ve received funding from the Avalon Foundation. I mention that for the sake of full disclosure but that’s not what’s awkward.
What’s awkward is that Colin is about to call High Tech High the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. And Dr. Marseille is going to talk about how he couldn’t stop smiling. Yes, it’s going to sound like we’re running an ad for ourselves but it’s relevant, seriously. And oddly enough, the first time Colin came to High Tech High, it wasn’t to see the schools, it was to see the grad school.
COLIN MCCARTHY: They had heard about this school, High Tech High where it was a high school that had a graduate school, and they wanted to do something similar. So I said, well, how about I fly out and try to find some information and see if I can help out.
And I flew out there for that purpose. And when I saw what was happening at Hi Tech High, I was really blown away in a way that I had never been before. It was the most amazing school I had ever seen. And to be honest, at that point, High Tech High’s model, which is very similar to the workshop’s schools model but a little different, became what I wanted to recreate. Or their model was probably the biggest inspiration for me.
ALEC PATTON: Colin told Dr. Marseille all about it and brought him to San Diego to see it for himself.
WAGNER MARSEILLE: Walking through High Tech High, I think I couldn’t stop smiling, all right. So I’m walking with a grin in my face like, wow, they really imagined what school should be like.
ALEC PATTON: What were you smiling about? What was it about High Tech High that struck you?
WAGNER MARSEILLE: Student engagement, the authenticity, the relationship that students had with their teacher. It reminded me of the singletons of my experience where I could name one or two where I had that connection versus it just seems like everyone had this really strong bond with each other. I love the fact that students were able to display their work.
So you kind of walk into this space where you see their progression or evolution of student understanding, without it being in a computerized Excel document that shows numbers. You saw the interaction between and amongst students. Everyone was doing something, everyone had a role, everyone understood their role, and everyone understood what the end game was.
And then you saw this teacher who just kind of create the conditions for that to happen. And jumped in and said, I don’t know, ask your team that question. And I’m thinking to myself, how many teachers feel comfortable saying, I don’t know the answer to that but I’m sure your classmates know, go back and tell me what you find out and come back and share that with me. So that open space was just phenomenal in terms of the invitation to learn and the invitation to take risk.
ALEC PATTON: When did it click for you that this was like a component of addressing systemic inequities?
WAGNER MARSEILLE: When I saw students who traditionally would not find success in the way in which we measured it are engaged in the learning.
ALEC PATTON: This is when Dr. Marseille really connected the dots between his own childhood, Cheltenham’s equity problem, and project-based learning. Dr. Marseille and Colin had a vision, now they just had to get a team together.
That’s next time on High Tech High Unboxed. High Tech High Unboxed is written and edited by me, Alec Patton. Our theme music is by Brother Hershel. We’ve got lots more to come about Cheltenham as they make their journey from theory to practice. Thanks for listening.
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