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‘Reinventing Classic’ at Penn Charter

How Penn Charter’s IdeaLabs are transforming the learning process.

The William Penn Charter School has a rich history steeped in Quaker tradition, but “old fashioned” is certainly not what comes to mind when you step into the IdeaLab project spaces. Multiple 3D printers and other state-of-the-art technologies will correct that faster than you can say “coding”—which, by the way, the kindergarteners are learning.


Kindergarteners at Penn Charter learn coding language through pictorials, and then use that language to program robots to accomplish specific tasks. “They are learning to read and write, and they are greatly expanding their understanding of syntax,” explained John Zurcher, Director of Enrollment Management and Lower School Admissions. “We talk about coding in the same way as learning a language.”


Penn Charter often describes its academic program as “reinventing classic,” and nowhere is it more apparent than in the IdeaLabs, which use technology, innovation, and collaboration for interdisciplinary learning. Coding robots, for example, teaches timeless skills like reading, language, problem solving, and teamwork, but Penn Charter is instilling these “age-old competencies in a modern way, incorporating modern tools and concepts,” Zurcher describes.


The IdeaLabs are part of the curriculum from prekindergarten all the way up through grade 12, and incorporate multiple skills and subjects taught in a hands-on and innovative way.


While kindergarteners are coding, fourth graders are busy trying to achieve world peace. Their project—the World Peace Game—involves a four-level game board created using 3D printers in the IdeaLab. Students design and print the pieces, and then—in groups playing roles like the World Bank and NGOs—address worldwide issues and collaborate to react to these situations and avoid conflict. The game takes five days to play, and in creating and playing the game, kids learn everything from design to diplomacy, while also embodying the Quaker values that guide Penn Charter’s mission.


Lysa Puma, mother of Lev, a rising fifth grader, and Madaline, a rising ninth grader, tells us, “Watching my Lev carefully and delicately consider his country’s resources and needs and negotiate with other countries blew my mind. A 10-year-old’s ability to dig deep and analyze many world issues not only created a life skill, but also showed how Penn Charter prepares our children to tackle complex situations.”


Profile by Laura Swartz. Photographs courtesy of William Penn Charter.

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Penn Charter is a pre-K to 12 coed Friends school in Philadelphia. It is the fifth-oldest school in America and the oldest Quaker school in the world. Their core principles—mutual respect, equality, community—are endlessly renewable and fearlessly modern. www.penncharter.com