Profound speech in hand, Samuel Franklin walked into his classroom of underprivileged sixth-graders for his first day in Teach for America. He planned to emphasize how they would team up to beat the odds, proving their critics wrong. But as the words came out of his mouth, he realized how silly he sounded. The students were waiting for him to start teaching.
Franklin, who had noticed inequalities in the public education system throughout his own time in school, had no doubt in his mind that he wanted to join Teach for America after finishing his undergraduate studies at Ohio’s Kenyon College. Teach for America recruits graduates to teach for two years in underprivileged public schools.
Franklin began his assignment in the Oakland, California school believing that with proper support and motivation, every student can succeed. His school’s student population was made up entirely of minority students from low-income families. After that first day, Franklin always went into his classroom, filled with students, and shut the door, effectively making his own one-room schoolhouse. He also teamed up with colleagues to create engaging lessons. The sixth-graders learning math from him thrived. But outside of his classroom walls, he saw huge variations in the quality of teachers, noticing that the other good teachers, like him, were taking personal responsibility for everything that happened in their classrooms.
As his tenure with Teach for America came to a close, he knew he wanted to continue working for equality in education. He applied to Carnegie Mellon’s public policy graduate program in Heinz College. He was accepted and received a fellowship offered to students committed to issues of racial equity and social justice, which sold him on the school.
During his first year, the superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, Mark Roosevelt, gave a guest lecture about the region’s school system. The district had just finished closing a record number of public schools after a drop in population. Some of the remaining public schools weren’t doing well. It was time to step up their game to make Pittsburgh a top city for education.
Roosevelt’s lecture gave Franklin an idea. “All students at Heinz have to do a consulting systems project with a team in order to graduate. It’s one of the great things about the Heinz program. The lecture sparked an idea to work directly with the Pittsburgh school district.”
Subsequently, he and a team of classmates embarked on a real-world consulting project for the school district. As project manager, he spent the year with his team doing research into what makes a school work. They organized an advisory committee of experts in Pittsburgh and visited schools in other cities for more ideas. Their goal was to design a school capable of accepting students at many different academic levels and providing all of them with the necessary amount of support to succeed.
The team examined every detail of what goes into a school and considered how it could be improved, covering their project room with Post-it notes representing every possible variable in an educational system. Much of their attention went into the schedule of the school day, which Franklin describes as the backbone linking all aspects of a school. If you want something to happen, you have to incorporate it into the schedule, he says. Their planned schedule looked very different from traditional schedules. It included a mid-day activity period for club activities that usually got stuck at the end of the day, when many students didn’t want to hang around. Other schedule nuances involved courses offered for different lengths of time, ranging from a quarter- year to a full year; and students could choose a specialized field of science to study in depth.
By the end of the year, the team—collaborating with their committee of community advisors— had made substantial progress in developing an innovative model for a school. Superintendent Roosevelt wanted to make the project a reality. The district hired Franklin for two years after his 2007 graduation to oversee the project through to completion. He worked on every aspect of policy-making and reform, including curriculum development and hiring and training of teachers.
He was also in charge of student recruitment. Rather than selecting “top students” to attend the school, he put in place a selection process that favored students based on demonstration of interest and motivation and a lack of otherwise available opportunities. With good teachers and support, Franklin says, motivation is all a student needs to succeed.
He served as project manager for the school until the doors opened for what is now called the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy. He then handed the reins over to the specially selected teachers and faculty, leaving them to make the most of the systems he and his team put in place. Today, the academy has an enrollment of nearly 500 students in grades 6-12 and initial results are “very encouraging.”
Franklin is now taking his philosophies on teaching to a broader scale by leading the district’s Office of Teacher Effectivenes with grant support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Ideally, he says, the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy will be a model for other schools.
Carnegie Mellon recognized his accomplishment by giving him one of the university’s prestigious alumni awards last fall. Upon acceptance as a Recent Alumni honoree, he says he knew better than to give a profound speech.
Olivia London (DC’13) is a senior English major at Carnegie Mellon and has been a regular contributor to the magazine since her junior year.