Carpentry teacher Jared Lauterbach stopped short when he spied the student seated at the sidewalk art table, sketching a design for a school logo.
“Is that Yahya?”
Yahya Long, 15, looked up. He slowly unfolded his lanky frame to his 5-foot-11 height.
“You’re tall!” said the 6-foot-3 Lauterbach, as Yahya met him almost eye-to-eye. “I wouldn’t have thought that.”
Yahya seemed to smile behind his mask. His eyes crinkled, and the two fell into conversation.
It’s hard to take the full measure of a student when your only prior contact has been as a face in a box on a computer screen — or sometimes, just a voice. Yahya, a student at Philadelphia’s Workshop School, had spent his entire ninth grade year learning virtually, and this was the first time he was meeting his teachers and classmates in person.
There were many such exchanges that June morning on the narrow street outside Workshop, a small school founded ten years ago so students could “learn by doing,” discover their talents, and acquire real job skills. Students, teachers, and parents mingled at an event that was billed as a “summer break giveaway” — long tables were lined with everything from backpacks to Cheetos to tampons — and a day for fun and games.
But mostly, it was a chance for people to see each other in person. Not one of Workshop’s 250 students, including 65 ninth graders, spent a single day this year learning in the building. While the freshmen, like those in all district high schools, had the opportunity to come back two days a week starting in early May for what would have been 10 days of in-person learning, none of the students at Workshop chose that option.
This year, most students had to adjust to learning from home. For Yahya, who has been mostly homeschooled, his freshman year was supposed to be a chance to attend traditional school and work on ideas and projects with his peers.
Traditional school wasn’t entirely new to Yahya. He briefly attended Gompers Elementary in West Philadelphia’s Wynnefield neighborhood when he was 8 years old, but it was not a good experience. He was bored, and he thought the teachers seemed overly focused on disciplining students.
He cried every morning that he didn’t want to go to school, said his mother, Angela Brockington-Long, who pulled him out after two and a half months. She had sent him to Gompers after he came off a bad time at an “unschooling” program that was too unstructured even for her.
All of Brockington-Long’s three children, of whom Yahya is the youngest, were educated primarily at home or in alternative unschooling programs like Open Connections and the Natural Creativity Center until high school. “Unschooling” is a movement that believes students’ own interests and creativity should drive their learning, with appropriate but minimal guidance from adults.
Brockington-Long describes her own school experience as often rote and boring, so she doesn’t equate going to school with learning. For her children, she prized a setting where they could develop a sense of empowerment.
Once they were adolescents, she felt they already had a good foundation but needed more socialization. Her oldest son attended Boys Latin, a charter high school, and her daughter, now at New York University, graduated from the district’s High School for Creative and Performing Arts.
When Yahya became old enough for high school, he was eager to make friends in a different way than through online gaming, which has been his main source of interaction with peers. Mostly, he wanted a place where he could be creative and indulge his interest in animation, among other pursuits.
As they searched for the right place, their standards were high. She and Yahya visited Workshop “BC, before COVID,” she said, and “I just really fell in love with it.” She could feel that the staff “really seems to care about young people. I was leery of putting Yahya in the system, but here he’s really allowed to hold on to his autonomy and still have agency over himself.”
As it turns out, Brockington-Long’s view of what education should be lines up closely with that of Simon Hauger, founder and principal at Workshop.
Hauger achieved fame 15 years ago as a teacher, when a group of his West Philadelphia High School students designed sleek electric cars that won national competitions. After leaving the district for a few years to run a nonprofit, he was eager to create a different kind of high school more in line with his educational philosophy that schools should give students real-world skills. He returned to the district to found Workshop, coincidentally at the site of West Philly High’s automotive academy, no longer in use because the school had moved.
Building innovative cars is just one project Workshop students can engage in. They’ve designed escape rooms, researched and organized a symposium on mass incarceration, made bridges out of popsicles sturdy enough to support 175 pounds, built boats out of cardboard that can sail and hold a person, and developed a new recipe for a breakfast cake that used less sugar but remained tasty.
“The fundamental idea is that every child has gifts and talents,” Hauger said. “All are valuable, and a school should be about you discovering who you are and developing skills for the future that are true to that. Few of us learn about ourselves by reading textbooks and doing worksheets. People really learn differently, and schools only serve one type of learner, which is not even the majority of us anymore.”
This was just what Yahya and Brockington-Long were looking for. Yahya loves animation and making things. “I grew up on visuals, TV shows, cartoons,” he said. His mother added that “he’s always up late, working on stuff…the mad professor.”
Workshop, they both felt, would cultivate this creativity.
But then COVID happened and the school’s normal rhythms stopped. Instead of doing projects with other people and finding friends, Yahya spent all day, every day in his room on the computer, except for walking his dog. Days marched by with faces, or maybe just names, in boxes — advisory, then English, then math. Workshop’s teachers reached out to communicate and tried to be creative in adapting to the conditions, but there were limits.
“If you really value helping a child develop their true self, it starts with community,” said Hauger, the principal. “The idea of relationships is essential in all schools. How do you do that virtually? Mediocrely.”
In Yahya’s homeschooling days, Brockington-Long enrolled him in programs like the private Natural Creativity Center, which has space in a Germantown church, so he would sometimes go to another location to learn, and children spent much of their time engaged in creative play and projects. And especially when he was younger, Yahya’s mom would take him on frequent trips to museums and the library.
But for this past year of virtual learning, through no fault of the school or its teachers, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to do any of that and also keep up with the daily schedule of online classes.
“I was really looking forward to making things,” Yahya, speaking about his expectations for the year.
He had a 3-D printer at home. But he said in March that he hadn’t “had the motivation” to take advantage of it. He lost a USB that he needed, he explained, and didn’t get it together to replace it. He did a few little projects, but nothing like he had hoped.
As far as personal connections, those were difficult online.
“Friends? I would say acquaintances. Everyone seems nice, but I’ve not really made friends.” In most classes, most students kept their cameras off. If the teacher asks, “I will put it on,” he said. “But if they don’t care, I leave it off. It’s a mix. Depending on the class.”
Despite the challenges, Yahya did make connections with teachers. They described him as quirky, creative, and smart.
“He’s quieter, but he’s one of my top students,” said Swetha Narasimhan, his ninth grade adviser, under whose supervision he built a lamp, a project Yahya described as the high point of his year. He used a laser cutter picked up at the school to draw a design on Plexiglass and he had to do the wiring. His design was offbeat — funny for its own sake.
He worked on other projects with his class. For the last one of the year, Narisimhan brought in a variety of people to describe their jobs, from attorneys to a woman who works for UPS keeping track of fuel and mileage for vehicles.
“I had to select a job,” Yahya said. “I picked the car fueler. I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Too much work. Too much drama.”
The project, he said, focused on creating ideal working conditions — considering who the person reported to, who made decisions that affected the person’s job, and how workers protect their rights.
He made a presentation, and he enjoyed doing it. But it wasn’t the same as building a tangible thing.
“He has some creative and thoughtful ideas,” Narasimhan said. “He communicates well. It’s a different personality, more on the nerdy side, with a subtle, sly humor.”
Kwesi Vincent, Yahya’s algebra teacher, credited the student’s hard work. Vincent, in his first year of teaching after a career as an engineer, said his own learning curve was steep. He found teaching to boxes on Zoom to be “weird, strange. There are so many things you can’t get from looking at them on a screen.” He had switched to teaching to “make a difference” and answer the call for more STEM teachers of color, especially men. But as a new teacher of a difficult subject, “it was hard for me to get a sense of what was working and what wasn’t working.”
But Yahya’s determination was palpable, he said, even through the computer, even if he had his camera turned off. “From what he said, I knew he was working on it. If he was stuck, he would say, ‘Wait, I want to work to see if I can get it.’ He was courageous and not afraid to make a mistake.”
While the year didn’t turn out as planned, it was a positive experience, both Yahya and his mom said.
“It was fine, I guess,” Yahya said in his classic understated style. “It wasn’t too crazy, since online is not too difficult for me.”
And it was clear from his interactions at the end-of-year event that the relationships developed with the teachers were real.
After greeting Yahya at the in-person event, Lauterbach launched into a mission to get him to apply for Work Ready, a summer program that employs teens, giving them connections and job skills.
Lauterbach was leading one of the projects, working with students to design and build outdoor shelving and seating at the city’s 52nd Street public library branch.
Lauterbach wanted Yahya to do it, and took him and his mom around to show them some shelves already under construction for the project. All ninth graders take carpentry at Workshop, where they learn to use a laser cutter and Computer Aided Design, or CAD, programs.
In the class this year, Yayha was “my top scorer,” Lauterbach said. Even in the virtual environment, “He was an amazing student, very diligent, very creative, and got stuff done on time.” For taking part in the three-week summer program, Yahya would earn $595. He signed up on the spot.
At one of the sidewalk tables, students — anyone, actually — had the opportunity to write down their hopes for the future. Yahya didn’t write down his wish, but he made it clear what he wants: To be in school. In person.