Musings on High Tech High

I have been fortunate enough to spend the past two days immersed in the workings of High Tech High, a cluster of innovative charter schools in San Diego, California. According to their web-site, “High Tech High now operates nine schools in San Diego County: one elementary school, three middle schools, and five high schools. All of these schools serve a diverse, lottery-selected student population; all embody the High Tech High design principles of personalization, adult world connection, common intellectual mission, and teacher as designer.”

I don’t think I’ve ever been so inspired. Sounds corny. It’s not. The schools are incredible. Visitors are first struck by the architectural design including transparent (literally) classrooms, common work spaces and walls plastered tastefully with student works of art. Next you encounter articulate and reflective teachers who truly serve as knowledge facilitators rather than knowledge dispensers. Most impressive, however, are the students. Bright-eyed, motivated, articulate and intellectually grounded, they are the antithesis to the apathetic teen stereotype. The kids are curious, passionate and respectful to peers and adults alike. Walking around the campus, I experienced extremely high levels of student engagement everywhere. In one corner, students work in small teams composing original music. In another, students sit on couches around a table discussing how to tackle their Oedipus project. In the classroom next door, students conduct a mock trial about the Burr-Hamilton Duel.Across the way, students enthusiastically & confidently demonstrate their casino games to complete strangers

Although there are a multitude of factors that synergistically create this magical learning community, a few stand out to me:

1. A flexible, learn as we go mentality among and between adults and students. As challenges arise among the faculty or in the classrooms, there is an optimistic solution-oriented response.
2. A commitment and consciousness to minimize bureaucracy. Rather than purchase orders, teachers are given debit cards so they can purchase what they need when they need it. Traditional teacher evaluations are replaced by continual self-reflection. Grade level, cross disciplinary teams make decisions for the students they are responsible for.
3. Project Based Learning – the criteria and methodology for project based learning is crystal clear to the teachers, the students and even the visitors. Steinberg’s 6 A’s form the framework for project design. One can clearly see academic rigor, authenticity, applied learning, active exploration, adult connections, and assessment practices in every classroom.
4. Technology is viewed as a means to an end. It is silent. Nothing is taught for technology’s sake. Rather, technology is viewed as just another resource to support projects
5. Culture of Collaboration – structures are in place to ensure that teachers are frequently talking to each other about student learning. Teachers begin each day in 45 minute grade level meetings. They spend eight days before school starts collaboratively planning and putting forth their projects for peer review. They use protocols to fine tune their projects. This collaborative spirit trickles down to the classroom at every level.
6. Teachers as Designers – as radical as it sounds, instructional design decisions are in the hands of the instructional experts, the teachers. The Design Cycle is infused at all levels from overall design of the school to the design of faculty collaboration to the design of student projects to the integration of design principles into the actual student projects.

What I’m wondering is why more people aren’t looking to the High Tech High Model to revitalize our nation’s high schools. The model is working. The results speak for themselves. I guess it would be too radical a notion to take something that actually works and replicate it….

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