By: Jennifer Stainton
What is the mission of High Tech Schools? What are the core values that drive the work of all teachers and students? How is this mission communicated so it is truly a shared vision? These were the questions I had in mind as we started our tour of the many schools comprising the High Tech campus. Within minutes, my questions were answered, but not in a way I expected.
Was there a mission statement on the wall? No. T-shirts with values emblazoned on the back? Nope. Course catalog neatly packaged and handed out with mission on page 1? You probably guessed it… no.
The originators of the High Tech Schools ignored all of that. In fact, intentional ignoring of what they call “basic axioms” in education is what drives the work of High Tech Schools. They intentionally don’t do the following:
Separate students according to perceived academic ability
Separate hand and minds - and “disciplines”
Separate school from the world
They call these “don’t do’s” their “three integrations,” and they use them to drive the everyday experiences of High Tech School students. I found this angle of intention setting rather refreshing: a concrete list of things a school doesn’t believe in instead of the highly traditional (oft-written, rarely followed, lofty to the point of inducing eye-rolling) school mission statement.
So, what does this look like? I’ll share some examples of the second “don’t do”: separating the disciplines. English and History are combined into a 2-hour block of humanities. Science integrates math and is also taught in a 2 hour block. Math is also taught apart from science, however it is taught in an integrative model with Math 1, 2 and 3 for course offerings instead of algebra, geometry, etc… But beyond these structures for integration, I observed an English and Science teacher collaborating to integrate their subjects. The teachers brought together cyphers and coding with the reading and analysis of dystopian novels to engage students in the design of escape rooms that incorporate all of these ideas. The top 3 escape room designs will actually be built by the students for the public to enter and attempt to escape. I also saw a chemistry teacher integrate science and business to start a soap making company with his students, using the profits to bolster scholarships for High Tech Students.
I observed students engaging with experts in the field. I spoke with three students who just returned from an interview with the head of Sea World to learn more about the impact of invasive species on ocean life. They said, “we were really nervous to meet with him, but he was really good about explaining things clearly to us, and we got a lot of information for our project.” The students were just sitting down to listen to the recording of the interview and glean even more useful information to help with their project.
I saw teachers focusing on student learner outcomes that were transferable between subject areas. The photo below shows Student Learning Outcomes that were posted on the wall at High Tech International (one of the HT High Schools). Interestingly, these almost perfectly match the Vermont Transferable Skills. With a focus on learning outcomes that include collaboration, critical thinking, and communication, I can imagine teachers see discipline integration as both opportunity and necessity.