Posted October 26th 2017 at 3:48 pm by
in Schools and Implications for Urban Planning

Should planners care about schools? (Part 4): The West Philly Landscape Project

In my last two posts, Brian Barnes and Ceasar McDowell shared some thoughts on how schools can be community serving institutions, especially in marginalized communities.

A crucial question they imply is “who bears the responsibility of changing, the schools (their administrators, teachers, funders, etc.) or the students and their families?” Realistically, both parties do, but too often a disproportionately heavy burden is placed on the students – first they must blindly buy into a system with very little proof that it will work for them, then sit still, learn things from a set curriculum, etc.

Anne Whiston Spirn, a professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, recently introduced me to the videos below, which describe an exciting program at West Philadelphia’s Sulzberger Middle School (part of the Philadelphia public school system) and give us a glimpse of what education could look like if schools decided to bear the burden of change and take the first step toward its students.

In one of the videos, Don Armstead, a teacher at Sulzberger, said that “our biggest problem is not necessarily teaching the youth but it’s more about getting them to buy into education. Once you get them going you couldn’t stop them if you wanted to.” Asking youth to devote 8 hours a day for 14 years of their lives to a system that hasn’t made life much better for the people they are closest to is perhaps an absurd request, especially when simultaneously telling them they should be critical thinkers. At Sulzberger, part of the buy-in process was working with the students to research the history of their neighborhood (help them to discover that the neighborhood isn’t like this “naturally” but because of decisions of residents and more powerful people) and imagine possible but undetermined futures (and each person’s potential role in bringing them about).

Through this process, education was transformed from a top-down, compulsory, and irrelevant drill to a tool students could use to draw new pathways for their neighborhood.

Eventually, the Sulzberger model was abandoned when the state of Pennsylvania took over the Philadelphia School District for financial reasons and gave the control of Sulzberger to Edison, Inc., a for-profit organization . As Armstead says in the video, “people do not want to admit that education can change.” Granted, I don’t know the full story behind the seeming regression of the school but it makes me wonder: What is it that makes us cling so dearly to ways of doing things that don’t work, even when we have better models sitting right in front of us? When people with power in our institutions start figuring out what makes it so difficult for them/us to change maybe the success of our entire education system won’t rely as much on whether or not entering 5 year olds decide to change to fit a certain mold.

Fatima’s Story from Anne Whiston Spirn on Vimeo.

A Note from Anne Spirn

The Mill Creek Project at Sulzberger Middle School (1995-2002) was part of the West Philadelphia Landscape Project, now entering its fourth decade ( In 1995, I began to work with middle school students. At first, it wasn’t about the kids for me, it was about how to reach the adults in the community. But I learned a lot from working with those kids. If I had it to do over again, I would start working with children right from the beginning. Sixth, seventh, eighth-graders are emerging into adulthood, ready to take on responsibility, becoming self-aware and mature, and looking at the world around them. They are ready to become problem solvers and innovators in their neighborhoods. They are a wellspring, not just of capacity and vision, but also of hope. They have hope and determination, and they can come up with the most amazing solutions.

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