The Philadelphia School Partnership announced Tuesday that it will donate $2.6 million in grant funding in the hopes of aiding the creation of 850 new seats in what it deems high-performing district, charter and Catholic-run schools.

Building 21, a new district-run high school opening in the Fall, will receive the majority of the funding: $2 million in startup cash over four years.

As a non-academically selective high school, Building 21 will enroll 150 students into its 9th grade in the Fall, with hopes of growing to 600 students by 2017.

The school, which will be housed in the former Ferguson Elementary School in North Philly, will enroll 60 percent of its student body from those living in surrounding neighborhoods.

The other 40 percent of Building 21's seats will be open to city-wide admission. All rising 8th graders are invited to apply to the school beginning Monday, March 24th. 

Building 21 is the brainchild of Laura Shubilla, the former president of Philadelphia Youth Network — a nonprofit that seeks to reduce the city's dropout-rate and prepare students for the workforce.

"What I learned from that experience is how important connecting learning to the real world is to high school students," said Shubilla, who has been developing Building 21 as part of her doctoral work at the Harvard School of Education. 

The school will reflect her central educational philosophy: With a stress on project-based "real world" learning, students will be assigned "competencies," and then be given leeway in how they prove their mastery of subject matter.

"High school graduation shouldn't be just be based on credits and courses," she said, "but actually skills and knowledge."

The Philadelphia School District's website describes Building 21's pedagogy this way:

"The high school experience focuses on 'learner as designer,' where students create their own self-paced learning pathways and choose from a variety of instructional opportunities, including blended learning, problem-based learning and experiential learning. Traditional courses are re-organized into 'studios' that are based on fields of study, such as journalism, environmental science, and finance. In studios, students have the opportunity to integrate content and apply their skills and knowledge to solve real-world problems."

Students applying to Building 21 must complete a one-page application.  Shubilla says the school will keep kids no matter their academic performance.

"We have no plans to kick kids out because of poor academic performance. Our plan is to work with kids to get them where they need to be," she said. "The whole reason we're doing this is to bring kids in who have struggled in some cases and haven't necessarily found their place. We want to create a school where they can really be successful."

In July, 2013, PSP announced it would pledge $50,000 to Building 21 for planning and design. Those dollars have already been spent. (Building 21 also received a $100,000 grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges.)

'Great Schools Fund'

PSP draws its grant funding from its Great Schools Fund, which has been seeking to raise and distribute $100 million by 2017 to create 35,000 high-performing seats in Philadelphia. It hopes to do this "by turning around low-performing schools, expanding high performing schools, or creating new high-quality schools."

So far, PSP has invested $31.4 million since 2011, affecting 14,340 seats.

According to PSP's release: "About 83 percent of students enrolled in the 27 Fund-supported schools come from low-income households; 94 percent come from minority households, and 16 percent are classified as having special-education needs."

The rest of the grant announcement breaks down as follows:

New Foundations Charter (K-12) in Northeast Philadelphia will receive $575,000 as a "growth grant." The School Reform Commission has agreed to raise New Foundations' enrollment cap from 1,250 students this year to 1,500 students in 2015.

Judging by the state's new school performance profile scores (SPP), New Foundations ranks 7th of all Philadelphia public high schools. Drawing from most-up-to-date state data, here's a demographic breakdown of New Foundations and its nearest district-run neighborhood high school, Abraham Lincoln:

School Enrollment SPP score % economically disadvantaged % English language learners % special education (non-gifted) % boys % girls
New Foundations Charter 1067 83.5 61.95% 0.09% 9.47% 47.89% 52.11%
Abraham Lincoln 1817 44.4 69.73% 5.23% 21.35% 54.87% 45.13%

 * District schools and charter schools use different methods to calculate % economically disadvantaged. Hard to compare apples to apples here.

$88,000 will be provided to the North Philadelphia Education Compact (NPEC) as an incubation grant supporting the addition of more seats in high-quality schools in North Philadelphia. NPEC is a collaboration among Aspira of PA, Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Nueva Esperanza, Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, and the School District of Philadelphia.

"The group will evaluate strengths and needs within the zone and develop strategies to increase access to high-quality education, such as redefining feeder patterns, identifying growth opportunities, and increasing collaboration among schools," said PSP's official release.

PSP will also provide a $25,000 incubation grant to study the creation of Liguori Academy, "a 'second chance' Catholic high school, which will seek to specifically serve populations that are at risk of failing out of the traditional Archdiocesan high schools in Philadelphia."

The high school would serve 250 students.

"It's exciting to see such variety of new and improved school options," wrote PSP executive director Mark Gleason in the official release. "These leadership teams have demonstrated their ability to build effective teams of teachers and envision ambitious new models of education to put more students on the path to college and careers."

Building 21 is one of three new non-academically selective high schools being opened by the district in North Philadelphia in the Fall. The U School and The LINC round out the list.

The U School and The Linc will enroll, through lottery, half of their students from the surrounding 11 zip codes, and half from students citywide. The admissions process for these schools also begins on March 24th. (Application deadlines are April 25th.)

By 2017-18 the district expects these three new schools to serve more than 1,500 students.

Above and beyond all grant funding, the district says these three new high schools will cost a total of $3 million per year to sustain. (The district could not provide a cost breakdown for each school).

"It's mostly money we would have spent educating students in our other schools," said district spokesman Fernando Gallard. "There are stranded costs, but we think they are worth this investment." 

Gallard said the district was "committed to continuing funding" in the long run.

All teachers hired for these three schools will be members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and will enjoy all benefits of whatever contract terms are active at the time of hiring. 100 percent of the teaching staff will be chosen through the site selection process.

The name Building 21 an homage and hopeful update of Building 20, a legendary building on MIT's campus once known as a hub of creativity and innovation.