The High Tech High Way Print E-mail

hightechhigh(University of San Diego Magazine Spring 2005)

High school. The mere thought of it induces shudders. Long hallways with crammed lockers and mass crowding; alarm bells that summon students from room to room like Skinnerian rats in a maze; rows of desks where pupils, immobilized, write notes and take tests.

Maybe your high school was even worse. Perhaps your memories—or those of someone you know—are of armed guards, metal detectors, fights, chaos. Who among us wants to go back? And yet, despite the near-universal angst of such memories, many still believe that to educate adolescents, high schools must resemble work camps in which students endure standardized examinations, classroom isolation from their peers and a one-size-fits-all learning model of droning lectures and rote homework.

The idea that high school doesn’t have to be a negative experience is the concept behind San Diego’s High Tech High, a revolutionary and visionary charter high school that opened in 2000. All 154 students from the school’s first two senior classes have been accepted by—or now attend—college, a 100 percent success rate. According to High Tech High’s Web site, the students comprise the most ethnically diverse student body in the region and consistently rank among the best and brightest in California on state-mandated tests. The school, which was created by a coalition of education practitioners and business leaders, was profiled last year in Forbes magazine as a model charter school.

In five short years, the school has expanded to include grades 6-12 and doubled its enrollment to more than 1000. Inside High Tech High’s three large buildings, located on the grounds of the former Naval Training Center in the Point Loma area of San Diego, are big-windowed project rooms that resemble business spaces at a design firm or advertising agency. A ceiling enhanced by skylights and exposed steel girders evokes a church-like loft. Although no bell rings, at 8:40 a.m. morning chatter gives way to purposeful quiet: some kids are in class, forming groups to develop Web sites or PowerPoint presentations; others are outside the project rooms with laptops, huddling with peers, making neat messes. The atmosphere may look unstructured, but the engagement of the students is evident in their focused concentration.

Students working quietly, productively and independently? How is this version of high school possible? Some of it has to do with the innovative curriculum, which strongly emphasizes personalization of each student’s instruction, internships that connect students to the real world, and the school’s intellectual mission—students work together on projects in which they solve problems and present their work to their fellow students and adults.

But a lot of it has to do with High Tech High’s dedicated teachers and professionals, more than 10 percent of whom are USD graduates. They believe in, and live, High Tech High’s mission to provide students with an innovative liberal arts and technology-based education and to graduate students who will be thoughtful, engaged citizens in their communities. As they teach their students, these USD alumni are raising the expectations for education in America.

Song and Dance with a Twist

Brett Peterson ’02 (M.A.) is an 11th-grade humanities instructor at High Tech High. He embraces the range of learning abilities among his students, from the gifted to the struggling and everyone in between. It’s the opposite of the traditional Advanced Placement educational system, he says, which rewards gifted students but segregates under-performers.

“What pulled me in to teach here was the autonomy of the students and the autonomy granted to the teachers,” says Peterson. “At other schools, teachers wield the gigantic textbook, rush through it to hit every point, and hope to God the kids will do well on the state tests. Here, stronger learners help those who are not as strong. You see their passion for the subject grow simultaneously.”

Like his colleagues, Peterson teaches two two-and-a-half-hour classes, morning and afternoon, 80 students total. That’s less than half the load of the typical high school teacher. Fewer students allow faculty to work on the school’s core principle of “personalization,” best reflected in the advisory program, in which each teacher advises 15 students.

“For the time the students are at High Tech High,” Peterson says, “the advisor is the one constant here, the student’s primary advocate.”

Peterson and the other advisors begin the school year with a home visit. “I’ll go to these palatial residences in La Jolla, where the maid opens the door and escorts me to the dining room, and I sit down with the parents who make cell phone calls during the meeting,” he says. “That same day, I’ll go to Barrio Logan, a bit nervous, [finding the apartment] through a chain-link fence, and the student is translating everything for the mother. The disparity is profound.”

The point, Peterson says, is that teachers know the income and the participation levels of the parents; with that knowledge they can individualize each student’s needs, from computer training to college applications.

“My biggest challenge is not discipline, but rather designing project-based assignments that aren’t trite,” says the popular teacher. One example is the evolution of his unit on Manifest Destiny. In his first year, he lectured and the students read.

“It was so traditional. I wasn’t really getting to them, and I was struggling,” Peterson says. “A colleague said, ‘Why don’t you have them sing a song about Manifest Destiny?’ So the next year, in addition to some lecture and some readings, they had to write a song, and they performed it in front of the junior class. Some kids were musically talented, other kids were dancers. This year, I’ve turned it into a several-weeks-long process, with guest speakers, primary research and, again, they write and sing a song.”

The current class’ production will be publicly performed at a local coffeehouse, professionally lighted and videotaped. “Eventually, none of them will remember my lecture on Manifest Destiny,” laughs Peterson. “But they will recall from photos and memories the event itself, which they’ll tie to the learning and the material.”

No trace of fatigue wearies the spirit of the 26-year-old, even though, as Peterson describes it, his out-of-class duties—hiring fairs, coffeehouse projects, weekend review sessions for the infrequent exams—can be endless. But, he says, “I wouldn’t have it any other way. Teaching is a sacrifice no matter where you are.”

Overachievers ‘R’ Us

High Tech High is a school to its students, but to the people behind the scenes it’s partly a business, too. One of the hubs of this well-oiled machine is Rebecca Haddock ’93 (M.Ed.), the school’s regional director of communications and outreach. She bubbles with energy as she walks through the halls, checking in with students about their latest projects and talking about what brought her to High Tech High.

Haddock met Larry Rosenstock, the creative force behind High Tech High and the school’s CEO/principal, when she worked at Price Charities. Rosenstock, a former teacher who worked for the U.S. Department of Education before becoming the president of Price Charities, told Haddock about his vision to build High Tech High as an innovative, individualized, technologically driven learning environment. When the school was seeded with money from business executive and philanthropist Gary Jacobs, Haddock was ready to come on board.

Haddock’s main function is fund-raising. She promotes High Tech High to law firms, universities and industry, creating partnerships and sponsorships. She recalls that her first big donation came from Manpower of San Diego, which bought the naming rights to High Tech High’s internship program: $10,000 a year over five years.

“I’m always looking for more donors, people in technology who want to create a pipeline from the school into industry for motivated students, or who want to sponsor our science program,” Haddock says.

Tuition-free High Tech High gets some funding from the state, but it’s never enough. To survive, Haddock and the staff must raise additional money every year to cover the mortgage, buy computers and pay teachers comparably well. This year, three new buildings and 36 new teachers will be added.

“We’re expanding like mad,” says Haddock, explaining that because students face a district-mandated lottery by ZIP code to get in, only one out of five make it. “There’s story after story. Kids will tell you that without High Tech High they wouldn’t know where they would be, or they wouldn’t have gotten into college.”

In fact, the expectation is that every kid who attends High Tech High will go to college. Chris White ’95 (M.A. ’01), High Tech High’s director of college advising, was attracted to the school after hearing the late-’90s buzz about the school’s launch. Like his colleagues, he joined up with a purpose.

“I wanted to put this school on the college admissions map,” says White, who began by forging relationships with local colleges and big-name universities. His efforts paid off: 85 percent of graduates are at four-year schools, among them MIT, Stanford, all nine University of California campuses, and USD.

“Two advantages of High Tech High are the college-bound culture and our small size,” White says. “I can know the interests, goals, background and GPA of every senior, all 80 of them.”

White helps each student apply to three colleges, but a big part of his job is to assist students—many of whom will be first in their families to attend college—with adapting to the culture of big schools like San Diego State, where large classes are the norm, individual attention is rare and lines of students waiting for a counselor predominate.

White’s gregariousness comes alive during his regular college prep talks to 7th and 8th-graders. He kicks off one by asking, “Who’s to say how much money you make is the measure of happiness?” then pauses for an ironic smile. “But, for the moment, let’s say there’s something to it.” As he continues—asking a name, listening actively, praising good responses—White points out the financial gap between those with a high school degree, who earn an average of $21,600 per year, and those with a college degree, who earn around $50,000.

“Can you buy a nice car if you only graduate from high school?” he asks. Their eyes already on the prize, nearly every head shakes no.

Students or Teachers: Who’s More Revved Up?

On a recent day at High Tech High, a lanky, dark-haired 14-year-old named Nick was in an open area outside his 9th-grade humanities room, working with a laptop and a slide projector. This week, the “World Religions” component of the class has the students making an altar to express their spirituality. Nick wants to be an architect; he hoped to one day design skyscrapers like the twin towers of the World Trade Center. With the towers fallen, he will instead pay homage to their loft and geometric rigor by erecting a large wall-size poster. As he draws, other students stop by. “Cool,” they say. A reporter marvels at Nick’s self-direction, but he takes it in stride. “Obviously, our teachers have a lot of trust in us to do our work,” he says.

The altars project was developed by Ian Eggleston ’98 (M.A.) and a colleague, who set out to get kids interested in world religions while fulfilling the objectives of their humanities class. The altars project includes a written testament and an oral presentation; in addition, students will visit a Buddhist temple, a Jewish synagogue and the Self-Realization Fellowship temple in nearby Encinitas, Calif.

Calm and gracious, Eggleston hails from Nottingham, England. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Evansville, Indiana, and, impressed by USD’s counseling program graduates, came to San Diego—sight unseen—to study college services.

He returned to England for a three-year stint as a dean of students at a small college, but a subsequent “two long years in corporate America” convinced him to call Haddock, who arranged a tour of High Tech High.

“Once she showed me around, I knew I had to teach here,” he recalls. “I was supremely thankful to get a position.”

Eggleston began teaching in August 2004 at High Tech High’s new sister school, High Tech High International, where faculty internationalize the curriculum for their 188 students. In just one semester he’s found a lot to appreciate: the freedom he receives to design curriculum; the effort of his students; the reward of seeing how group learning drives their creative and critical thinking; even the many afternoon hours of coaching soccer on the school’s too-small, lumpy field.

“High Tech High has been exactly as I expected,” he says. “I understood from the beginning how hard everyone worked, but I can’t think of any other place I’d rather spend 60 or 70 hours a week. It’s an absolute privilege to be here.”

Eggleston’s sentiments are echoed by Janel Holcomb, a credentialed 10th-grade math/science teacher who’s finishing her master’s in education at USD with a focus on curriculum design. Two years ago, she volunteered at High Tech High and got excited by its project-based learning approach. Later, as a student-teacher at Mar Vista High School, she found packed classes and scant technology resources.

“I tried out everything I could in the non-traditional lecture, but a lot of it didn’t work,” she recalls. Before long, she decided to take a job at High Tech High.

Now, to begin a new semester, Holcomb, a vibrant young woman with long flowing hair, puts her kids in groups. They learn science by designing homes that use renewable resources, and they learn math by applying principles of geometry to the home’s energy consumption. Each house must have a blueprint, exterior elevation drawings and a scale model. Holcomb also includes economics by having the students budget their expenses via spreadsheets.

Does Holcomb ever witness adolescent girls getting turned off to science at High Tech High? Rarely, she says. Parents often tell her that their daughters had never been excited about science before having Holcomb in the classroom. “The girls get revved up by having a woman as a math and science teacher,” she explains.Holcomb, a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a degree in chemical engineering, knows there are bigger paychecks elsewhere. She has friends who were hired right out of college at near-six-figure salaries. But money’s not really the point of teaching at High Tech High, she says. Like most teachers, especially first-time teachers, she expects to work hard and long. “I’m usually here at 7 a.m. and don’t leave until after 5,” she says. “It’s hard, but I love it.”

Kids Like School Here

In 2002, High Tech Middle opened next door to High Tech High. The middle school, with 393 6th-to-8th-grade students, also is geared toward project-based learning. Before applying as a middle-school instructor, 8th-grade humanities teacher Melissa Vincent ’03 (M.A.) did her student-teaching at High Tech High. At USD, she says, “My professors distinguished between visual and hands-on learners. But you can’t understand what’s involved in teaching and all the diverse abilities in the classroom until you start working here.”

Vincent, whose young face belies an intellectual nature, is focusing her American History lessons on the revolutionary period. Different student groups research and present from a variety of perspectives: Native Americans, women, the writers of the Declaration of Independ-ence and the Fugitive Slave Act, attendees at the Constitutional Convention. “It’s a lot less me talking,” she says, “and a lot more of them talking.”

How is Vincent convinced that the school’s learning models work? “Kids like school here. They line up after lunch, waiting to get back into the building. I don’t know how that happens, but they say, ‘We need to get back in, it’s 12:30.’ Kids stay after school; they like their teachers. They beg me to read. How many schools are there where they’re begging to read?”

Last year, Vincent created lessons on Cesar Chavez and on migrant workers. After a bake sale and the purchase of food to distribute to those in need, her class visited an orphanage in Tijuana. Buoyed by the opportunities for such on-site learning, Vincent intends to author a new curriculum that will partner with a nonprofit organization and focus on social issues in the community. But she still dreams of substantive reforms.

“I want to free kids from huge public schools, from having to take those standardized tests,” she says. “With ‘No Child Left Behind,’ testing has overtaken everything. It’s very political; I’m very interested in how education is influenced by federal policy.”

The teachers certainly believe in the school, but the measure of a school’s success really shows through the willingness of its alumni to bear its torch. Though just 19, Rory Ball, who graduated in 2003, is already promoting High Tech High. Now a USD sophomore majoring in communications, the soft-voiced Ball calls himself “a High Tech advertiser.” He often gives tours of the school to families, new students, businesspeople, whoever. “I like the school,” he says. “I support it in any way I can.”

As a 10th-grader at Point Loma High School, Ball wanted out.

“It was really boring, the same thing every day,” he says. “Always busy work, fill out these assignments. There was an anti-learning feel to it. I wasn’t doing anything substantial.”

Once he got in to High Tech High, Ball says there wasn’t a day that he woke up and didn’t want to go to class. The projects inspired him, especially when they came from real-world experts—like the Boeing engineer who taught his physics class and had the kids design their own catapult. From design to torque and velocity calculations, from power-tool assemblage to launch, from detailed record-keeping to a school-wide presentation, Ball remembers the experience fondly. “It was like real-world work,” he says.

When it came time to apply to colleges, however, Ball was concerned that his unorthodox experience at High Tech High might work against him. Those worries weren’t warranted. USD not only accepted him, but allowed his education to continue on the same kind of path that kept him so engaged in high school. Small classes, opportunities to know his professors, a liberal arts and technological focus, all remind him of what he most treasures from his alma mater.

Think about that—he treasures his memories of high school.