A High Tech High hallway features part of an art project, "Bridge to Nowhere," along with many other examples of student work. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)
Walking onto a High Tech High campus is like entering a workshop. Our tour guide, sophomore Caroline Egler, pointed out classrooms that supposedly housed physics or humanities or biology, but most students weren’t in those rooms. They were in the hallways working on projects, huddled around computers together, or even working at desks elevated 8 feet above the ground so they towered over the floor. Students seem to be working with purpose, even if it’s not immediately obvious what they’re doing. The scene is chaotic, but not out of control.
It’s not always like this, Egler assured us, a group of education journalists visiting as part of the Education Writers Association’s Rethinking the American High School seminar. Students at this campus of the San Diego-based charter network seemed more frantic than usual because they were rushing to finish projects they’d been working on all semester, she said. They’d be exhibiting their work to real-world audiences at the end of the week.
Each student had to develop a physical product to represent their learning over the semester; they planned to exhibit their work at the Mexican border in coordination with Mexican students they had been working with over Skype since the class began.
Egler explained that she was making a podcast -- complete with original music composed by a classmate -- about differing views on President Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico. Other students in her class were exploring topics like drug trafficking and sexual harassment; the only requirement was that the project relate to the border. It was a shared project between Spanish and humanities classes.
These kinds of community-grounded events are part of what High Tech High calls real-world work. The learning and its products are displayed not just to teachers, students or even parents, but to a larger community of experts. That gives school assignments more relevance -- the work actually matters to the world.
The other thing visitors immediately notice about the school is the incredible work hanging from ceilings, lining the walls, and built into the hallways. Photographs, a bridge to nowhere, self-portraits, full-size boats, weather balloons, robots -- beautiful work is celebrated at the school and its constant presence reminds students of the high expectations their teachers set for them.
The High Tech High network mostly operates on the California per-pupil funding formula, but it chooses to allocate its money very differently from many other school systems. High Tech High School doesn’t have a football team, a library or textbooks, all pricey areas where the school saves some money. It also offers few class choices to students; for the most part, students take classes that satisfy the University of California’s A-G requirements. And many teachers have dual credentials, allowing them to teach multiple subjects or combine subjects.
But what seems like a lack of choice in classes isn’t as limiting as one might think. The charter network’s schools are built around four essential design principles: equity, personalization, authentic work and collaborative design. While those guiding principles are at the heart of every class, there’s a lot of variety in every other way. And students are encouraged to pursue ideas they’re passionate about, which allows for some of the choice they might otherwise lack.
For example, Aaron Price is in the same humanities-Spanish class as Caroline Egler. He built a data logger that he attached to a weather balloon and used it to measure CO2 levels at the border. He was part of a team investigating shared environmental concerns in the U.S.-Mexico border region. Price’s physical work product was more technical, but he also wrote and published a research paper, as well as a website with his findings. It’s almost like Egler with her political podcast and Price with his weather balloon are in two different classes. That’s what personalization looks like at High Tech High schools, and it’s why students don’t mind that the course catalog is limited.
The charter network accepts students through a lottery that randomly takes a certain number of students from every ZIP code in San Diego. Since the city, like many others, has many neighborhoods that are racially and ethnically isolated, this ensures the student body reflects San Diego’s population.
Personalization is achieved in part by keeping class sizes small; teachers have the opportunity to get to know students and their passions well. They can adapt projects to students’ interests, and push individuals to do their best work.
“It is not students all sitting in front of computers doing a self-paced math program,” said Larry Rosenstock, founding principal and CEO of High Tech High. “It is not finding the right pace or right technique to get this inert content to each student.”
Instead, personalization at High Tech High is a partnership between the teacher and student to find an authentic project that genuinely motivates students to produce meaningful work. And, because teachers' schedules are arranged so they see fewer students at a time, they can push the young people they work with to reach individual goals.
“It means you and the student are going to work together to design something that’s going to be academically relevant to what you’re trying to teach them, but also personally meaningful to the student,” said Russell Walker, an 11th-grade history teacher. He designs the broad strokes of the project, but students take it in many different directions.
“I would say it is criminal negligence if you’re not doing that in project-based learning,” Walker said. “Because if you’re saying, ‘Here’s this project and you’re all going to make the same thing,’ that’s not really very interesting. They’ll just copy what you did.”
Involving S voice into the development of a project provides expert insight, valuable information, and creative solutions! We invite Ss into our work to give them voice and standing...How do you engage Ss in the process of planning and learning? pic.twitter.com/WmnPaE5eg7
During the fall semester, Walker collaborated with a biology teacher on a semester-long project about space colonization. Students were tasked with thinking through what they’d need to sustain life off earth, and along the way they learned about DNA, cell replication, physiological systems in the body, ecosystems and more.
“It’s all the stuff you would normally do in a biology class," Walker said, "but it’s applied in a way that students are interested in learning and applying it.”
For the history side of things, students had to decide what kind of society they would build on their space colony. To do that, they read political theory and philosophers from the Enlightenment. Students discussed the mistakes of colonialism, and covered a broad swath of history as they worked to create something better on their new planet.
“All of this is stuff students are researching and learning about, but it's all integrated into this project, rather than being this cold, removed, isolated content that we study for a while and then we move on to the next thing,” Walker said.
Walker used to teach Advanced Placement environmental science at a high school in Los Angeles, where he taught 150 students each day and was expected to help as many as possible pass the AP test. He said the experience left him feeling uninspired as a professional and drained of his creativity because he spent hours handling the minutiae of lesson planning and grading.
Now, Walker says he works with 48 students (although some High Tech High teachers see between 50-100 students in core classes). His time as an educator is spent researching to prepare a great project, experimenting with the tasks for students, meeting one-on-one with students, providing critique and feedback on their work, and generally engaging with students around ideas.
“As a teacher, it's way more fun and interesting to work here,” Walker said. “And I think a lot of teachers who are burned out or losing hope on the way things are running could benefit from shifting to [project-based learning].”
Another High Tech High teacher, Mike Strong, agreed that one of his favorite things about the school is the autonomy it offers him. Teachers are treated as professionals and are allowed to be creative, he said. That’s a tall order, and can be exhausting, but it’s much more exciting. And when teachers are given autonomy, they tend to transfer it to students as well.
Egler said her teachers trust her -- something she’s come to expect.
“Teachers trust that if they put [students] outside of the class and let them go, that the students are going to be diligent and get to work,” she said.
If a particular student fails to live up to her end of the bargain, or is flagrantly disrespectful, the teacher can take away privileges. The school doesn’t give detentions and only rarely suspends or expels students, according to Egler. Instead, students will have a conversation with the teacher about their behavior and will be asked to think of a way to make amends.
Mark Aguirre, a ninth-grade humanities teacher, sees a lot of students who don’t think they like school, but when they're 14, there’s still a chance to convince them that they’re wrong. He admits it doesn’t work for every kid, and some do leave, but he’s been teaching at High Tech High since 2001 and says he firmly believes it works for most students.
“You have to convince them that what we’re doing has value by coming up with something interesting for them to do,” he said.
Aside from the small class sizes, autonomy, project-based curriculum, freedom to design classes based on loose themes, and expectation that students will create work that experts will want to evaluate, High Tech High is different from the conventional high school in other ways. Students aren’t tracked, and there are no AP classes. All students can opt into honors-level work, which comes with a few different requirements but doesn’t separate them into a different section. Crucially, students decide whether they want to be on the honors track two to three weeks into the semester, which gives tentative students the opportunity to try out honors-level work before committing.
“My first instinct was that honors students should read more or different books than the non-honors students,” said Randy Scherer, who used to teach English at the school, but now directs the High Tech High Graduate School’s professional development program to support other project-based-learning teachers.
He soon realized that only kids who already loved reading were signing up for honors. That didn’t seem fair; he realized he was just padding the GPAs of kids who would read anyway. Instead he defined honors as “adding knowledge to the world that did not exist,” such as by building Wikipedia pages and writing books, for example.
“We’re trying to be creatively compliant,” Scherer said. “We have to do something so people will recognize it. But we really want everyone to be in honors.”
The charter network has skillfully pushed boundaries while making sure its students aren’t disadvantaged when they apply to college, according to Scherer. After nearly 20 years, they’ve got a good reputation, which gives them more wiggle room with the state.
“Some of the practices we push on students, like reflection, teachers do that as well," said teacher Mike Strong about working at a charter network like High Tech High. "There’s constant critique and revision for even things like how we have meetings.”
That can become exhausting, but it’s also what keeps the school from regressing to the mean, one of Larry Rosenstock's biggest fears.
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