Just outside the entrance to String Theory Charter School in Center City Philadelphia is the famous “Break Through Your Mold” sculpture, one of the world’s top 10 public art works. The piece shows a man progressing through four different stages. At first, he is trapped within a mold, hands pinned behind him. In the next stage, he twists his shoulders free. Then he takes a step and leans forward, reaching out a grasping hand. At last, he leaves an empty outline in the mold behind him, leaping out onto the sidewalk, head and arms raised skyward.
“This sculpture is about the struggle for achievement of freedom through the creative process,” wrote Zenos Frudakis, the sculptor. “I have created a space in which I have written ‘stand here’ so that people can place themselves inside the sculpture and become part of the composition.”
Inside String Theory’s building, Jack Carr ’97 Ed.D., principal of the high school, is helping his students cultivate the kind of creativity Frudakis endorsed. The school contains a theater, choral and orchestra rooms, ballet studio, science labs, a TV and motion-capture studio, a robotics studio, and an engineering lab. The latest construction innovation at the school is the creation of a student-run, Starbucks-esque café where students in the entrepreneurial elective are learning the exciting yet challenging aspects of creating and managing a business. They are roasting their own coffee beans and serving up incredible lattes.
The school’s arts- and technology-infused curriculum is meant to help students “widen their spectrum of experiences,” Carr says, through active, applied learning within the creative process. Instead of textbooks, the school uses iPads, which allow students to collaborate easily on group projects and to research information quickly.
“With the Internet today, content knowledge is not nearly as important as it used to be,” Carr says. He acknowledges that students still need to learn certain basic facts, but he believes they primarily need creative problem-solving skills to be competitive in the 21st century workforce.
String Theory High School is only in its third year of operation and hasn’t graduated its first class yet, so Carr is looking forward to having complete data next year on his students’ college acceptance and career placement. But he does currently have good indicators that his students will be successful. Six of them are Young Scholars at the University of Pennsylvania, and about 55 are in a dual enrollment program at Drexel. Cabrini College just started offering courses on-site for students in the 11th grade.
Carr expects a lot, both academically and socially, from his 800 students. He also cares a lot. He gives students and their parents his cell phone number. If conflicts arise between classmates, they know to come to Carr instead of starting a fight. He wants his students to cultivate a vital skill: “How do you learn to work with people who may not necessarily share the same view of the world that you have?”
Carr allows his students some room to make mistakes as they work out conflicts. He isn’t a fan of “zero tolerance” policies, because he thinks they don’t adequately distinguish between serious offenses and the minor errors of judgment high schoolers can make.
“We’re trying to establish a common school culture,” Carr says. “When that happens, students experience fewer and fewer negative social issues.”
Carr came to String Theory with decades of experience building a healthy school culture. In 1974, he founded Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP), a prestigious Philadelphia magnet school, where he served as a teacher and later as principal until 2013. GAMP students have to audition to demonstrate that they are artistically and academically qualified.
“At String Theory, we get a chance to service students from a much broader segment of our city,” Carr says. Admission is determined by a lottery system, and thousands are on the waiting list.
“Students thrive with the arts,” Carr says. He describes a collaborative aquaponics project that students recently completed. A group of them raised tilapia in tanks with salad greens growing alongside them, creating a symbiotic environment for both fish and plants. Other students used their photography skills to create collages of the aquaponic system. When the fish were full-grown, the school hosted a fish-fry. The dining staff served the harvested salad greens and demonstrated how to fillet and cook the tilapia. Families ate dinner and listened to the students provide detailed analysis of their year-long scientific study.
Carr enjoys seeing his students participate in these kinds of projects, which help them to explore ideas, experiment with different possibilities, and get involved with building their own creative solutions.
The “Break Through Your Mold” sculpture was installed in 2001, before String Theory occupied the building. But somehow its four stages of breaking free seem fitting for the high school students who will spend four years of their lives there.