Students in Philadelphia's Sustainability Workshop follow a challenging curriculum built on pursuing their interests through hands-on projects.

High school feels different in the big white mansion at the edge of the Navy Yard in Philadelphia—no desks in rows. No 47-minute class periods. No warnings to remove the hat, put the cell phone away, take the exam seriously.

Instead, small groups of students are designing their own workshop space. They’re drawing up more efficient bus routes for the Philadelphia School District. Their teachers act as mentors, sounding boards, not lecturers.

The premise? American high schools are broken.

The solutions? The founders of the Sustainability Workshop are trying to find them.

The workshop is an alternative senior-year project built on the lessons of the West Philadelphia High after-school program whose members have been building hybrid cars and winning important competitions for more than a decade.

Its founders—four teacher friends who worked at West—want to turn the workshop into a full-fledged school, under the district or a charter, by 2013.

“The indicators tell us [the traditional high school] model isn’t working,” Simon Hauger, an engineer-turned-teacher who started the hybrid team, says on a recent school day. “We have to do it differently.”

That means believing students can do real, important work, Hauger says. It means delivering a challenging curriculum built on student interests through hands-on projects. It means fostering strong relationships that form the underpinnings of everything.

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Three months in, the school has garnered national buzz and attracted more than $500,000 in private funding from the Barra Foundation, the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster, and others.

Deep thinkers are already gushing over the workshop.

“I want to be down there all the time—to learn myself,” says Andrew Zwicker of the Princeton Physics Plasma Laboratory.

“It is so clearly the future of education,” says Zwicker, who is also associate director of education and workforce development for the innovation cluster. “Or at least it should be.”

Perhaps more important, the 28 students who took a leap of faith three months ago—by leaving their neighborhood high schools to try a new kind of education—are excited, too.