How One Philadelphia Teacher Became a “Rising Star”

Each year, a small group of devoted individuals begin their mission to create a world where high-quality, affordable education is accessible to virtually everyone. This group of individuals are the distinguished few that will go on to significantly improve the field of education.

The Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education honors and recognizes these individuals that unleash human potential through technology, methodology, and leadership. Beginning in 1988, the McGraw Prize has grown to become one of the most prominent prizes in education in the nation.

A distinguished recognition is the rising star category. Individuals who are recognized in the rising star category showed promise of becoming a game changer in the world of education by making meaningful contributions in the future to help narrow the achievement gap. The individuals recognized in this category would have already put a plan into motion that was improving the field of education.

In 2014, Chris Lehmann, who has worked as an english and technology teacher, as well as a science teacher, was honored with the McGraw Prize rising star award. Lehmann is the Founding Principal of Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia, Penn.


What is SLA?
Science Leadership Academy is an inquiry-driven, project-based school focused on 21st century learning to help students become prepared for college with a strong, well-rounded education.  For Lehmann, his
decision to create SLA was sparked by his passion for helping the world around him.

“I was raised with the idea that you make the world a better place because you live in it for a little while. I was raised with the idea of social justice,” said Lehmann. “For me, I think teaching was a very concrete way to do that, and to live that out. That is what drew me to teaching, it was a very real and tangible way I could affect real change.”

SLA is a strong example of this passion. With a strong focus on science, technology, mathematics, and entrepreneurship, students at SLA are able to learn in a project-based environment with the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection in every class. The combination of their vigorous curriculum and unique approach helps students gain the best education possible while developing critical thinking skills to analyze the world they live in.

Lehmann said, “SLA isn’t just about STEM, but more about inquiry. How can we ask powerful questions, how can we seek out answers, and how can we build artifacts of our learning that manifest those answers?”


SLA Partnerships
SLA has three campuses throughout Philadelphia, with two high schools and one middle school.  The first campus, SLA at Center City, opened its doors in 2006 as a partnership between The School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute. Known as one of the leading science centers in the country, The Franklin Institute provides SLA students with the opportunity for hands-on learning in the STEM fields.

Students in the 9th grade visit the Institute on a weekly basis to engage in hands-on STEM learning, while students in grades 10 – 12 are given the opportunity to continue learning at the Institute through an Independent Learning Program or internship opportunities. The partnership with The Franklin Institute allows the students to get a stronger STEM education through an unforgettable experience.

“When you partner with The Franklin Institute, you have incredible things to do with STEM learning,” Lehmann said. “Not only do you have a really big impact on STEM but you change what people think about school and what learning looks like.”

After seeing the success of The Franklin Institute partnership, Lehmann and SLA had the opportunity to partner with Drexel University in 2015. Together, they worked to open the school’s latest campus, Science Leadership Academy Middle School (SLA-MS) in September 2016. Using the same structure and academic focus as the high schools, SLA-MS allows longer class periods to give students more time in both the laboratory and performance-based settings. Currently located at Drexel’s Dornsife Center, students work directly with both the university and the Academy of Natural Sciences on a weekly basis.

“One of the great benefits about partnerships like Drexel is that we not only provide the same SLA curriculum to the middle school, but the kids can learn from Drexel, and Drexel can listen to the kids and learn from observing the middle school students,” said Lehmann.


The Focus on STEM
SLA continues to provide the opportunity for students to experience hands-on STEM learning in low income neighborhoods. With more jobs projected to become available in the STEM fields, the pressure is on for middle and high schools to ignite more interest in the areas. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that an additional 9 million STEM jobs will be on the market by 2022, but do not have enough college graduates to fill them.

“We have had the opportunity to do incredible things with STEM education. But SLA is not only STEM education, but an inquiry-driven education, where we have our students ask powerful questions and seek out powerful answers to those questions to help them make sense of the world,” Lehmann said.

Thanks to this unique approach, SLA can rest assured knowing that they have helped encourage more students to graduate in STEM fields. Of the 95% of SLA graduates who attend college, on average 40% pursue a STEM degree, while only 34% of college graduates received a STEM degree in 2014.


SLA's Accomplishments
Lehmann’s passion to educate students in a new, unique manner has earned him a positive reputation. Since 2006, SLA and Lehmann have been recognized all around the country for their learning model. Since winning the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education in 2014, Lehmann and the academy have continued to be recognized around the nation for their innovative approach to educating young adults.

“The best part about winning the McGraw Prize was that it really helped to heighten the awareness of what we are doing at SLA. It has helped to have a greater impact on the incredible work of the teachers, students, and parents alike, and I feel so lucky to be the stewardess on the school,” said Lehmann. Most recently, SLA was included on The 2016 U.S. News & World Report Best U.S. High Schools list, earning a bronze medal honor.

From 2009 to 2013, SLA was recognized as an “Apple Distinguished School,” an honor that only 33 schools in the nation had received by 2009. Continuing to show why he was selected as a McGraw Prize rising star, Lehmann was also honored as a Champion of Change for his work in education reform in 2011, less than a year before President Barack Obama visited the graduating class of 2012 to commend them for their hard work. In 2013, Lehmann was named the Outstanding Leader of the Year by the International Society of Technology in Education.

As he continues to gain more recognition, Lehmann remains committed to preparing the students for both the classroom and the world around them. In his eyes, this starts with how the teacher interacts in the classroom. In addition to providing advising twice a week, the teachers have access to professional development courses, provided by SLA.

“We as the faculty understand that our role is to be the facilitator. We think about how to create more authentic schools and try to understand deeply how to navigate conversations.” Lehmann said. “Our school helps bring knowledge to the table that will get the students more excited about what they are asked to do.”

Beyond his work at SLA, he and former SLA teacher Zac Chase co-authored the book, “Building Schools 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need,” in 2015. Together, Lehmann and Chase focus on the larger discussion of how education, learning, and physical school spaces can change through the use of technology.


Looking Towards the Future
In the future, Lehmann hopes to encourage more schools to implement learning models like the one at SLA, so students can not only learn more about these fields, but ultimately decide to pursue a lifelong career in them. SLA has a bright future ahead, and there are no signs of slowing down.

Lehmann said, “when looking at the future, we will continue to make sure these schools thrive. We continue to grow the model and continue to get better at what we do. We’re also looking at what the ripple is that we can have and what impacts we can have on other schools.”