Get Out Your Computers

By Luke Rettig

A Day in the Life of Harrisburg High School’s SciTech Campus

Just after 8 a.m., in a hallway four floors above Market Street, a $1,000 robot scurries through an obstacle course made of upside-down soda cups. Its creators – baby-faced high school students from SciTech’s popular robotics class – lean against a nearby window ledge, watching their four-wheeled machine successfully pilot itself back and forth.

Started in 2003, Harrisburg High School’s SciTech Campus was created for approximately 400 serious and motivated students from the Capital region. The school’s proximity to Harrisburg University, numerous arts and cultural institutions and the corporate community was designed to deliver a more integrated, real-world education – with a particular emphasis on science, math and technology.

Leading the SciTech robotics class is Bob Steps, a 72-year-old science teacher who approaches teaching like the corporate manager he used to be. “My obituary will say I was a school teacher,” he says, “not an IBM executive.” Looking over two classrooms filled with Harrisburg’s most eager and promising youth, he thinks of his own future.

“The question I always get is, ‘Why don’t I retire?’” He shakes his head. “Why would I retire? I’m actually helping some kids move ahead.”

On this particular morning in early April, SciTech has been moving ahead since 6:30 a.m., when its first students arrived on city buses. Entering the building, they are greeted by Security Officer Terrence Parsons, his brawny physique encased within a black polo shirt. Parsons sits behind a large desk in SciTech’s modern, rectilinear foyer, where he can monitor all entrances from a host of closed circuit cameras.

SciTech’s 366 enrolled students receive an additional lesson on professionalism the moment they arrive, particularly if they’re late. “Kids take the bus, and sometimes they don’t get here on time,” says Parsons. “I tell’em in the working world, that don’t fly. ‘My mom got me here late.’ Well, your mom don’t work for me,” Parsons says, laughing. “I tell’em to get on that early bus and make sure you have enough time.”

At 7:15 a.m., the school serves breakfast in a warm, well-lit basement cafeteria filled with circular tables. Students pass through serving lines loading their trays with food before sitting to eat, talk with friends and gradually wake up. They’ll report to class at 7:45 a.m. for a 30-minute “mentoring session,” where all grades are strategically mixed to break down class barriers.

While students mentor one another, SciTech’s teachers make final preparations for the day ahead. Over the next seven hours, they’ll cover subjects including the Great Migration of the 1920s, genetically modified organisms, binomial multiplication and the end of poverty. Across such wide-ranging topics, SciTech students display a refreshing willingness to express new ideas, explore, discuss, disagree and ultimately, to learn new subjects like professionals.

Unlike traditional high schools, there are no bells between classes. No shrill auditory prods driving students from class to class like cattle. “Why would we need bells?” asks one student. “We have a schedule.” Just like a university, every student has applied to and been granted admission at SciTech – whether at the insistence of a parent, the recommendation of an older sibling, the suggestion of a middle-school teacher or of their own accord. By curating an enthusiastic, volunteer student population, SciTech has created a spirit of professionalism, school ownership and, most importantly, family.

When SciTech lost its founder, 40-year-old Lisa Waller, to cancer in 2007, it didn’t just lose its institutional leader, it lost its mother. To honor her, SciTech created the Lisa Waller Student Center, the school’s only common room for groups larger than 30. It’s a space where students can work, read and periodically gaze at a large, beautiful mural of Waller, with a small reflective mirror placed over her heart.

“Yeah, it’s a family,” says one of SciTech’s Cougar Ambassadors, a further handpicked group of students responsible for leading school tours and presenting the SciTech story. “It’s one of those ‘everyone’s welcome’ kind of schools. People don’t have time to pick on anyone here. They’re more worried about studying and being successful.”

In the school’s main entrance hallway, a collection of flags hangs from the ceiling like a miniature United Nations, projecting a tone of diversity and multicultural appreciation. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s 2012 Performance Profile, SciTech’s student population is 67 percent African-American, 17 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian and 4 percent White. As a brand, the SciTech name may project a cold, digital exterior, but the school was built on heart and humanity.

In SciTech’s first-floor administrative offices, first-year Principal Sieta Achampong leans forward to discuss the daily process of keeping her teachers motivated, her students challenged and the precious SciTech culture maintained as Waller would have wanted. “Usually my days are pretty structured,” says Achampong. And though she misses the direct student contact she enjoyed years earlier as an English teacher, “As a principal,” she says, “you can impact more students.”

Dressed in a smart, cornflower-blue suit, Achampong always liked being the boss. But at SciTech she has to be multiple bosses. “There’s lots of things going on in our district,” she says. “You have to be 15 people at one time. We have a staff with a lot of master’s degrees. And Lisa [Waller] really empowered them. So to a first-year principal, you’re not comfortable sometimes. Expectations are very high from teachers.”

From students to teachers to administrators, SciTech creates a culture of high expectations by rigorously selecting its personnel – just like a business. “Choosing a teacher,” says Achampong, “is a multimillion-dollar investment with all the lives they affect.” And like all hard-charging employees, they want to grow and develop new skills. “Now how do I keep them motivated?” Achampong asks. Among other gestures, she says, “I support them, with notes at 10 p.m., little things that Lisa used to do that I appreciated.”

For a busy principal with a highly structured, highly social routine, Achampong admits that “sometimes it’s a little lonely,” especially when you’re the only principal. But she knows everyone in the building feels their own special stress to perform. “The teachers have peer pressure, too. So if you’re new here, there’s going to be people who make sure you sing the same tune.”

By mid-morning, SciTech has settled into its daily rhythms. Students are in class, and the hallways sit empty and silent. Long rows of thin lockers stand in formation with open areas covered by a staff-generated wallpaper of inspirational quotes printed on laminated construction paper. Around every corner there seems to be another uplifting, world-changing directive from a civic leader.

In Michelle Felton’s third period social studies class, freshmen are writing in their journals, formulating their thoughts on paper before entering a class-wide discussion. The open, absorbent nature of their minds provides an ideal instructional platform for Felton, an energetic and gifted teacher.

“I was the kid who was teaching my stuffed animals,” says Felton. “And you’re always developing your craft. You pay attention to your customer, and that’s your student. My customer is in front of me every day, and you know when you hit a home run and when you struck out.”

The freshmen in Felton’s class say SciTech is a lot of work – often a struggle – but that teachers are always there to help, often staying late. “At 2:45, I’m kicking kids outta the classroom,” Felton jokes. “But by far, they are motivated and want to get finished.”

Felton views the historical lack of achievement in Harrisburg City schools, widely reported through PSSA test scores, as exaggerated. For the 2013 school year, SciTech received a Building Level Academic Score of 69.9 from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Reducing an entire school to a single number – while necessary for benchmarking – miscommunicates the complexity of an educational institution and can cheat those who work within it. “We have so many students in extracurricular events who do very well,” says Felton. “And if you just use test scores, it doesn’t give a complete picture.”

Indeed, SciTech’s most noteworthy accomplishment – clear to any daylong visitor – is its culture. Among students, the typically divisive peer pressure of teenagers has been redirected towards building partnerships and celebrating academic success. Among teachers, there is a collective pressure to do more than what’s expected, whether running extracurricular activities or tutoring after school.

Bob Steps, the science teacher, says getting into SciTech is like winning a $1 million lottery. Students learn to collaborate, overcome challenges and stretch themselves. It’s a feat made possible by SciTech’s comparatively small group of educationally focused students, where it simply becomes harder to fall through the cracks – or misbehave – because everyone knows you.

Shortly after the day’s final lunch period, school counselor Stacey Rossi sits in her cozy office, organizing paperwork while a student fills out a free applicaiton for Federal student aid. It’s Rossi’s fourth year at SciTech, and she still can’t predict what each day will bring. “There can always be an emergency, especially when you work with teenagers,” says Rossi, smiling. “Teens are not great at prioritizing.”

True to form, students have flooded Rossi’s office on this particular afternoon, which is the final day to submit a certain scholarship application. As they gather around her desk with SciTech’s ubiquitous white laptop computers, Rossi points to a collection of newspaper clippings on the wall, celebrating former SciTech students who’ve previously won The Patriot-News’ “Best and Brightest” Awards. “I want to keep that going,” says Rossi, listing their names. “Adrian Jones went to Harvard. David Lopez went to MIT. Irv Pineda went to Stanford. I don’t want to be the counselor who doesn’t win one.”

SciTech students overwhelmingly want to attend college, but Rossi says their biggest challenge is money. “We’re big on scholarships,” she says, with her students having won Gates Millienium Scholarships, Questbridge Scholar Awards and Google Scholar awards. Nearly 61 percent of SciTech’s students come from economically disadvantaged homes, lending a special meaning to her work. “A lot of kids here are first-generation [college applicants], so they don’t have siblings or parents to look to. And they get nervous about whether they’ll have the money at the right time.”

Seeing so much potential, Rossi gets tired of “the bad rap we get as a district. We have really good kids doing good things. And no one hears that.” She says a better way to measure performance is to speak with SciTech students, and to hear the students who come back from college explain how prepared they were.

“Keep your RRAAP together” is a common saying at SciTech, says Achampong. The acronym stands for respect, rapport, attendance, attitude and preparation. It’s a saying originated by Lisa Waller and carried on today throughout the district. Observationally, it’s working at SciTech.

Instead of feeling like a high school, SciTech feels like a small Silicon Valley start-up. The natural systems of cohesion – from inter-class mentoring sessions to the extracurricular activities offered by teachers – has birthed an atmosphere of ownership and pride. When students, teachers and administrators uniformly describe their school as a family, the culture has spoken for itself.

Class ends at 2:45 p.m., and Achampong returns to her office 15 minutes later. “I’m a morning person,” she says, “so I’m pretty burned out by now.” But her day is far from over. In 10 minutes, she’ll meet with both the school district’s assistant information technology director and Eugune Spells, the principal of John Harris High School. Afterward, she’ll interview a prospective English teacher, then dash home to see her two daughters before meeting with Spells again.

District deadlines are fast approaching, says Achampong, and the corresponding workload has increased. As for SciTech’s reputation, “We catch it either way,” Achampong says, with a smile. “If we’re not better, we hear about it, but if we are better, we hear about that, too.” Overall, she says “there’s a lot of pride here.”