CHAD students learn the creative and the technical sides of design.
Mark Garvin CHAD students learn the creative and the technical sides of design.

In 1999, when Philadelphia hosted the AIA National Convention, the local chapter saw an opportunity to address two challenges impacting the architecture profession and American cities: the staggering lack of minority architects and the unfortunate state of urban public schools. Using Philadelphia as an example, could the AIA do something to repair this situation for the benefit of the profession and the city?

The Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD) is an attempt to answer that question. Launched in 1999 in collaboration with local educators as part of AIA Philadelphia’s Legacy 2000 Project, CHAD’s mission is to educate the urban poor (half its students are on welfare and 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches) and use design instruction to achieve that goal. By introducing students to the design process across the school’s curriculum—exposing them to the building industry and urban planning issues, and calling attention to a set of professions they might not otherwise consider—AIA Philadelphia Executive Director John Claypool, AIA, says that CHAD has increased the number of students considering careers in architecture. “Any way that children can be encouraged to look at this as a career choice is a good thing for the profession and for the nation,” Claypool says.

So has the school succeeded? Over a decade since its opening, CHAD now sends more than 90 percent of its students to college—a particular triumph in a city with a 60 percent graduation rate. CHAD’s principal, Peter Kountz, attributes this in part to the school’s unique curriculum. “The architecture and design curriculum is really important—not necessarily because it’s architecture and design but because it liberates the students. It’s a source of great freedom and inventiveness,” he says.

Since CHAD began, the concept of design-based public education has taken root. CHAD’s method of using architecture and design as a vehicle for a new type of teaching and learning has spurred similar programs around the country, with a burgeoning national trend of including more design instruction in public school. Adam Jarvi, Assoc. AIA, co-founder of Design Education Modus Operandi (D.E.M.O.) in Minneapolis, an organization that helps craft design-based learning for both students and teachers, calls the advantage of this kind of curriculum “structured openness.”

“Teachers know there’s something to having a more open approach, but not too open. The design process straddles that middle ground; it also has a certain rigor to it,” Jarvi says. As a result, “A lot of teachers are looking for this kind of instruction.”

Sandy Speicher, head of the Design for Learning domain at IDEO, a global design consultancy, extols design education because its principles are often at the nexus of so-called “21st-century skills.”

“The process of design is inherently a process of learning,” Speicher says. “It’s well documented that the jobs of the future require the skills to collaborate, to learn quickly, to be adaptable, creative, [and have a] facility with technology. Learning through the design process is a way to teach all those skills and also how to lead, follow, how to interpret and synthesize.”

Architecture’s creativity is what attracted Sean Canty, a 2005 CHAD graduate, to a career in the field. Growing up playing piano and dancing, Canty knew he wanted “to do something creative.” CHAD helped define that interest as architecture. The school’s location, just a block from Philadelphia’s historic core, helped him appreciate the role of architecture in the nation’s history. “That a building could carry so much meaning in a physical form was really interesting to me,” he says. But it was an internship at KSS Architects the summer of his sophomore year, and “seeing the production and excitement of the studio,” that sold him and has nurtured a long-lasting relationship with architect mentors.

A feedback loop of support from the architecture community is essential to CHAD and similar schools. AIA Philadelphia continues to raise $10,000 annually for CHAD; members of the design and construction industry sit on the board; and local firms such as EwingCole, Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, and Blackney Hayes Architects have donated time and money. But students are more likely to recognize the community’s impact through its ACE (architecture, construction, engineering) mentorship program, or the annual Spooktacular, in which young local architects and CHAD students pair up to design environments for Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia patients who can’t leave the hospital on Halloween to trick-or-treat. Canty believes local architects and designers “have an obligation to reach out to an institution like CHAD, and to build the architecture community over the long term.”

Tim Hayduk, director of Learning by Design:NY, a program run by the Center for Architecture Foundation in New York, which facilitates design instruction in the city’s public schools, sees exposure to actual practitioners and real-world design challenges as part of the key to growing young people’s interest in architecture. Over 52,000 students have been served by the program, many of them studying local challenges such as implementing a green roof on a school building and learning about engineering, planning, and modeling in the process. Working architects sit on the program’s board and often attend student design crits; at a recent visit, a board member spotted an exceptionally talented student and offered him a summer internship on the spot. Hayduk notes that it’s these kinds of encounters that help “break the walls down and allow new opportunities to happen.”

Implicit in the push for more design education is the chance, or the hope, that it will produce a new generation of architects more diverse than the current one. Despite CHAD’s underlying focus on architecture, only 15 percent of CHAD’s alumni go into the profession. According to Miguel Vazquez Gomez, the school’s director of college placement, “There’s room for improvement there.” (And there is definitely room for improvement nationwide.) Still, Gomez notes, the school’s mission is to use architecture and design as a mode of instruction—not just to groom architects—and the majority of CHAD’s students do attend colleges that focus on architecture, design, or the arts, with 60 percent of graduates over the past five years entering the design field.

For many urban public school students, Kountz notes, the priority may be less on becoming an architect or designer than on sticking through college—a task that can seem daunting when 90 percent of CHAD’s entering ninth graders read, write, and quantify at a fifth- or sixth-grade level. For Kountz, CHAD is so much more than just a professional incubator: “It’s not just about architecture—it’s about the students’ lives,” he says.

And CHAD has clearly made an impact on its graduates. Canty has hinted he might return to Philadelphia to teach at the school and continue the educational legacy that set him on his own path to higher education.