THE FRANKLIN Learning Center, tucked away in a tidy corner of Spring Garden, is a school where students huddle together in small groups and show real excitement about learning.
A stroll down its hallways takes you to places like Lynn Johnson's biology class, where one day this month 10th-graders were retrieving small cubes of potatoes from different solutions to learn about the process of osmosis.
In Anna Hatziandreou's literature class, teenagers vigorously debated the meaning of puzzling pictures of artwork:
"Is this a hat or a bird?" a student asked principal Charles Staniskis after showing him "The Human Condition," by Rene Magritte.
"It can't be a hat," said another student. "What would a hat be doing floating in the sky?"
Hatziandreou was using art to teach the concept of verisimilitude - that is, the quality of realism in film, literature or art.
Despite its recent selection as a national Blue Ribbon School, few in Philadelphia seem to know much about the Franklin Learning Center, a small magnet school on 15th Street near Wallace.
The school, often called FLC, also made U.S. News & World Report's 2010 list of the country's best high schools.
"It's the best-kept secret in Philadelphia," said Johnson, who described working at FLC as "like being in heaven."
But the Franklin Learning Center might not be a secret much longer.
Visitors from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation - created by the Microsoft founder - toured the school recently to find out how it has achieved so much. Its model is also starting to be used at other schools in the district.
Nearly 74 percent of FLC's 670 students come from economically disadvantaged groups, yet more than 90 percent of its graduates go on to college, according to the school district.
"It really makes me proud of the accomplishments that everybody has made in this school as a school family," Staniskis said.
The only other Pennsylvania high school to win a Blue Ribbon award this year was the Julia R. Masterman School, also in Spring Garden, at 17th and Spring Garden streets. Blue Ribbon Schools are selected by the U.S. Department of Education.
Only 314 of the 124,000 schools in the country received Blue Ribbon honors this year, the Education Department said.
It doesn't come as a surprise that Masterman, an elite magnet school whose students consistently have the highest test scores in the state, was selected.
But it may be a surprise that this is the Franklin Learning Center's second Blue Ribbon. It was first named a Blue Ribbon School in 1992, six years before Masterman won its first Blue Ribbon award in 1998.
No grades, no failing
Things are different at the Franklin Learning Center.
FLC has four mini-schools, and students choose an area to major in: Health Science, Humanities, Business and Technology, or Art and the Performing Arts.
Teachers and administrators describe FLC's educational philosophy as a "mastery learning" concept. It's an idea that has been used in many charter schools over the past decade.
But FLC started 36 years ago.
"We were basically operating as a charter school before charter schools existed," said Jeffrey Chesin, one of the school's administrators.
Unlike most city schools, students don't get grades. They receive credits or "distinguished credits," and students aren't permitted to receive a failing mark.
Students get "learning activity packets" for each credit in a course and are expected to work at their own pace. A student who doesn't complete a packet during a marking period is able to make up the work on Saturdays or during the summer.
"The difference here is time," Staniskis said. "We believe every student can achieve given they get the time they need to complete a unit."
Some students work faster and may graduate in three years.
Patton Vo had enough credits to graduate at the end of his junior year, but returned for his senior year because he wanted to take more classes - and because of his extracurricular activities.
"One reason I chose this school is that I wanted a place that was small and diverse," said Vo, who plans to study nursing in college. "This is the only school I know that is very college-based. We have majors, and it's taught me a lot about time management."
Denaya Holland, a senior who wants to be a neurologist, said that FLC has prepared her well for college. She has already taken some college courses through a dual-enrollment program. And, last month, she started an internship at Albert Einstein Medical Center on the neurology floor.
From Omaha to Philly
FLC opened as a response to the "increasingly high dropout rate we were seeing at Benjamin Franklin High School," Staniskis said of the school a block away.
He worked along with FLC's first principal, Frank Guido, who visited a number of schools around the country and came back with a program similar to one found at a Catholic high school in Omaha, Neb.
When FLC opened, Staniskis was dean of the science department. He has been principal since 1993.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that Staniskis' stable leadership is just one factor in making the school a success.
"Charles is a good principal," Jordan added. "He is fair and that's what teachers and children want. He's able to listen and not be threatened by teachers and their suggestions."
Hatziandreou said that teachers feel appreciated at FLC, as they are free to be creative in their lesson planning.
Staniskis "allows us flexibility as far as what we're teaching," Hatziandreou said. In addition, teachers are able to tailor instructions to meet the needs of individual students.
In other schools, teachers are "a bit more limited" in how they teach a concept, she added. "You have to follow a format that's given to you."
Perhaps because of that flexibility, teacher turnover is low. "Teachers leave here when they retire," Staniskis said.
This year, the school district is using the Franklin Learning Center model for four city schools that have been tapped for improvement.
In September, Lincoln, Roxborough, Vaux and the High School of the Future began a pilot program for incoming freshmen patterned after FLC.
Soon, more city schools may turn to FLC as a model.
District spokeswoman Elizabeth Childs said that they are exploring the "proficiency-based learning pathways" used at FLC with the Gates Foundation.
"Based on our assessment of these pilots, we may look at ways to expand the use of this model," she said.