West Coast: Thoughts on Innovative Schools

By: Stephen Stuntz

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High Tech High lives up to its reputation as a school that looks, teaches, assesses and engages students differently. The school has a real energy as students are moving throughout the building and very active in each classroom. Student projects are prominently displayed, esp. in High Tech Middle School, High Tech International and High Tech Chula Vista (there are 13 campuses of High Tech schools). Students seem highly engaged, proud of their school and work as well as being very comfortable interacting with visitors.

The first thing a visitor notices is the layout with big open areas and many places for students to congregate; think modern tech campus. In some of the campuses, there are major projects happening in the common area. At High Tech International, students were using glue and clamps as well as an electric drill to build a large display for their work right in the entrance. At other schools there are displays of work that are of high quality and semi permanent, not posters but work that mixes written work with art work professionally printed or laser cut into wood or displayed in another creative way. There is not a locker or athletic display case in sight; it is all about the student work.

At all of the High Tech Campuses in Point Loma, the classrooms are off of a larger common work space in a hub and spokes type of configuration. At Chula Vista there are common work spaces and a wing for each grade 9-12. Each classroom has large windows so that anyone can see in and so that students working in the common space are able to see and be seen by their teachers. The preferred mode of work in the classroom is cooperative group work though a lot of student run Socratic Seminars were also observed. The discussions and group work was very high quality. The big difference is that with Project Based Learning, the final products are months in the making, involve research, organization and planning, connection with outside experts and a final product or presentation (usually both) that is shared with a wide audience in a very public way. At the highest levels it may also include implementation of a community initiative or a product launch.

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Another interesting observation was that very few, as in almost none, of the students were “pulled out” for supplemental instruction. All special services were given by the classroom teacher, a peer (a lot of peer coaching was observed) or by one of the Education Specialists or Academic Coaches who worked in the classroom with students needing extra assistance. For a school with lots of students with diverse language and learning needs, this is a different approach than many schools take.

Students do not have much choice as to what classes they take and they don’t have as many electives such as arts, languages, music etc. as a comprehensive high school. They do, however, have choices within the parameters of the project within each class. This is a big difference with a comprehensive public high school.

High Tech High and the related campuses offer a unique approach to teaching and learning focusing on transferable 21st Century Skills, complex projects and public sharing of student work which is definitely worth exploring.