Renewing our schools so that every student can graduate and gain the skills they need to thrive in a complex global economy, takes creativity and rigor. It takes impassioned teachers and principals—who have experienced that magical moment when a student “gets it” and becomes excited about the future.  But educators can’t do it alone. They need a roadmap and support along the path—to break through the many challenges and transform their schools to a place where what students take away is authentic, useful, relevant and lasting.


When educators and business partners banded together to establish the first career academy 47 years ago, they made a promise to 25 young men—to get them to graduate with skills for a trade. These students were ranked the lowest academically and were considered the most likely to drop out. They were thought to be destined to fail.

The “founding” teachers invented a new way of teaching—a career-connected approach. This meant experimenting with new ways of breaking through to young people, developing cross-discipline curriculums, making the classroom student-centric, not teacher-centric. They did this with little more than a strong vision, creativity and what some would have said was an unreasonable amount of optimism.

At the end of the first year, the students’ attendance rate had risen from 50% to 95%. They were thriving, participating in class and learning a trade. This was the beginning of the academy model—a platform that is being in used in schools across the United States.


Schools that succeed have teachers that take ownership of the process of change and engagement. When teachers feel supported to experiment, to try out new ideas, and to bring their own unique offering into the classroom, the school culture takes on a life of its own. It becomes a place where change is embraced and everyone in the building is empowered to be and do his or her best.


Schools that succeed don’t have prepackaged experts helicoptered in to “fix” schools. They build the capacity for professional development from within. In short, they have teachers leading other teachers. While this framework takes more time to build, it’s a powerful idea because every neighborhood, every school, every class, every relationship has its unique set of challenges.

Schools that succeed have strong support for their teachers and principals. Philadelphia Academies, Inc. helps each partner school navigate through the change process. Because we have intimate knowledge of our schools, our expertise is hands-on and right-on relevant. We can adapt our guidance and tap resources in a way that is unique to their situations, opportunities and challenges.

In the second year of a three-year transformation, educators at Roxborough High School share their thoughts about challenges and breakthroughs.

Our Reach in 2014


  • Schools
  • • Abraham Lincoln High School*
  • • Roxborough High School *
  • • South Philadelphia High School
  • • Horace Howard Furness High School
  • • Parkway West High School
  • • Jules E. Mastbaum High School
  • • Swenson Arts and Technology High School
  • • Benjamin Franklin High School
  • • George Washington High School
  • • Kensington International Business High School
  • Career Areas
  • • Business and Technology
  • • Communication and Arts
  • • Environmental Science
  • • Health and Life Science
  • • Horticulture
  • • Hotel, Restaurant, Travel and Tourism
  • • Law
  • • Urban Education
*Wall-to-wall Schools

Reflections on Ideas & Change

Lisa Nutter, President,
Philadelphia Academies, Inc.

Who will succeed in life?

  • What researchers say: Resilience—the ability to overcome adversity—
    plays a big role in success. That’s good news, because most children are born with resilience built in—it’s not a genetic trait that only a few
    “super kids” possess. However, that alone will not predict who will just survive life’s challenges and who will thrive. To thrive, children need to be able to set and accomplish long-term educational and life goals—
    and use their innate resilience to stay on track. Children can’t do this alone. Those that succeed have a few things in common: caring relationships (at least one positive adult), someone to hold them to
    high expectations, and access to “real-life” opportunities.

  • What we see: We see grit and resilience in the stories of almost every young person we encounter. Many have adult struggles that they should not have, some face trauma daily, most are growing up in households that are economically on the edge. But we also see countless young people, even those identified as “at risk”, thriving and succeeding within the academy model. Just one positive adult can shift the balance and help a child flourish. That’s why the model requires—more than anything— adults that are positive, confident, gritty and resilient. Adults that can build a positive school culture and bring vision to young peoples’ lives.

  • True stories show: Contrary to what most Americans believe about equality of opportunity, a child’s economic position is heavily influenced by that of his or her parents. Some young people—most all the ones that succeed—are lucky enough to encounter a few well-placed, positive adults along the way that believe in them and are willing to help. Dr. Rameck Hunt was one of those fortunate ones. Growing up on the streets of Newark, New Jersey, Rameck made a pact with two friends—to become doctors. Overcoming countless obstacles, these three men stuck together and now all proudly bear the honorific “Doctor.”

  • Who succeeds in life shouldn't be about luck or
    Opportunity should be available to everyone,
    no matter what neighborhood you were born in or what
    school you were sent to. At Philadelphia Academies, we are
    on a mission to connect our city's youths to opportunity by
    design—and not leave it to happenstance.


Success is not something that just happens—
it comes after systematic practice and devotion. You have to have a near obsession to stay on the path to your purpose and the ability to adapt and change. The knowledge we’ve gained over 40+ years doesn't just add to the discussion, it gets immediately put into practice in our partner schools. Since our founding, we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

Here's a brief history of our thinking and actions and how they have evolved.

  • 1969

    CHANGE FOCUS: Academies approach founded in Philadelphia. Based on the theory that when students see relevance in their schoolwork—how they can apply it to "real world" work situations—they are inspired to stay in school.

    THE GOAL: To Improve graduation rates.

    THE OUTCOME: Launched the Electrical Academy at Edison High School.

    WHAT WE LEARNED: Students learn more when they see a purpose.

  • 1970–2008

    CHANGE FOCUS: We focused on providing direct support for Academy students.

    THE GOAL: To Connect students to "real-world" opportunities via careers and college.

    THE OUTCOME: Attendance, graduation and college attainment rates improved—outpacing those in the general school population. Academies approach becomes a national model for high schools throughout the U.S.

    WHAT WE LEARNED: Students thrive in continuous cohort groups with cross-curricular teaching teams.

  • 2009–2013

    CHANGE FOCUS: Expanding the reach of the Academy model in Philadelphia by building the capacity of teachers to provide the direct support to students.

    THE GOAL: Scaling to reach more students.

    THE OUTCOME: Results were slowed by 2012/13 school budget crisis, but we are keeping the momentum in “pocket” schools and two wall-to-wall schools.

    WHAT WE LEARNED: The best return on our investment is to invest in leaders who can garner support among their peers. With well-placed human capital, the Academy approach continued to be effective during the crisis.


    CHANGE FOCUS: Building grit and resilience into adult practitioners & our partner school culture/structure.

    THE GOAL: Building grit & resilience into our partner school culture.

    THE OUTCOME: Fully transformed Academy schools that are self-sufficient and adhere to the National Standards of Practice for Academies.

    WHAT WE LEARNED: Students generally have grown up learning to be strong and resilient. They need gritty adults that can help direct that strength to positive goals and outcomes.


Total income: $3,317,879
EVENT INCOME: $182,960


& Creating Transformational Education*

Leadership Partners

Platinum Partners

Gold Partners 

Silver Partners

Friends of the Academies

* Fiscal Year 2014-2015 listings.
  For questions or additions, please contact
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• Aramark Charitable Fund
• Middleton Family Fund
• PECO – An Exelon Company
• Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority
• Philadelphia Youth Network
• United Way of Greater Philadelphia and
  Southern New Jersey
• William Penn Foundation

• Comcast
• Independence Blue Cross
• Sunoco
• Wells Fargo

• Bank of America
• Citizens Bank
• Dow Chemical
• Jeff and Jean Griffiths
• Philadelphia Trading Company

• Auto Dealers CARing Fund
• Bank of New York
• JP Morgan Chase
• Lincoln Financial Group
• Patricia Kind Family Foundation
• Philadelphia Energy Solutions
• PNC Bank
• US Airways

• Ford Motor Company
• Giant Food Stores
• Henkels McCoy PEI, INC.

Our Reach in 2014



  • Abraham Lincoln High School*
  • Benjamin Franklin High School
  • George Washington High School
  • Horace Howard Furness High School
  • Jules E. Mastbaum High School
  • Kensington International Business
    High School
  • Parkway West High School
  • Paul Robeson High School for Human Services
  • Roxborough High School*
  • South Philadelphia High School
  • Swenson Arts and Technology High School
  • Universal Audenried Charter High School


  • Business and Technology
  • Communication and Arts
  • Environmental Science
  • Health and Life Science
  • Horticulture
  • Hotel, Restaurant, Travel and Tourism
  • Law
  • Urban Education
*Wall-to-wall Academy school
Download printable PDF