Before Alejandro Cervantes attended San Diego’s High Tech High, the mere thought of presenting a project publicly was enough to make him break out in a cold sweat.
“It would terrify me to give a presentation,” recalls the charter school’s 2005 graduate, now a sophomore at the University of San Diego. “But today, it doesn’t even faze me.”
It was the constant exposure to various forms of technology at High Tech High — including the regular use of PowerPoint — that Cervantes, 19, credits for his impressive public-speaking turnaround. “It’s just one small piece of software,” he acknowledges, “but learning it and regularly using it made me no longer afraid to present.”
High Tech High Snapshot
- 2,500 students
- 200 employees
- 7 schools
- 4 high schools
- 2 middle schools
- 1 elementary school
- $18 million annual budget
- First school opened in 2000
Indeed, by integrating technology throughout its curriculum, High Tech High is striving to not only better prepare students for college, work and citizenship, but also to combat the joint problems of student disengagement and low academic achievement.
Administrators view the creation of a learning environment that prepares a diverse group of students for postsecondary success among High Tech High’s greatest achievements. The school’s personalized, hands-on approach to learning, along with its emphasis on connecting to the adult world through internships, has afforded traditionally underserved students access to college and other postsecondary options. More than half of High Tech High graduates are first-generation college students, while nearly 25 percent qualify for free/reduced lunch. As High Tech High prepares to open additional schools, that number is expected to increase to 40 percent.
“We are finding that being technologically rich is helping us to increase student engagement,” explains Ben Daley, chief academic officer at High Tech High. “Technology is first and foremost a vehicle for engaging students in real-world, interdisciplinary, hands-on project-based work.”
Meeting High Expectations
Launched as a single charter high school in 2000, High Tech High has evolved into an organization that now encompasses four high schools, two middle schools and one elementary school. Throughout the campuses, a personalized, project-based learning environment challenges students to meet high expectations.
And meet them, they have. To date, 99 percent of High Tech High graduates have gone on to college, with 80 percent enrolling in four-year institutions including Johns Hopkins, MIT, Stanford, USC, University of California at Berkeley and Northwestern, according to Daley. Furthermore, Academic Performance Index rankings place High Tech High schools among the highest-achieving in California.
Seamless access to technology such as notebook PCs, desktops in every classroom, wireless access, multimedia labs and in-class projectors not only enhances the learning process at High Tech High schools but also makes school more appealing to students, according to Cervantes.
“With everyday access to computers and laptops, we were able to get all the information we needed at the click of a button,” he explains. “The fact that High Tech High was so modern definitely made me want to learn and go to school every day.”
“We’re integrating technology into the classroom, whatever that classroom may be,” adds Chris White, the school’s director of college advising. “Technology is constantly changing, and we want our students to be able to adapt to it. We’re inspiring kids to be creative. Hopefully, we’re inspiring them to not just suck up knowledge, but also to create knowledge.”
Last year, a chording keyboard glove developed by senior Evan Morikawa as part of a science assignment was among the projects that exemplified such creativity.Morikawa’s device, which essentially consisted of a golf glove with electronics attached to the fingers that sent wireless signals to his personal digital assistant, was the winner of the 2006 California State Science Fair.
“We’re utilizing the typical [technological] things but we don’t do it in a typical way,” explains engineering teacher Darrell McClendon. “Technology is interwoven into the curriculum and used as another tool for kids to get more of a real-world feel for their projects.”
Finding Answers Outside the Textbook
For example, during their sophomore year, students are required to research a drug — including a chemical analysis of its effect on the body — then use iMovie to create a public service announcement about it.
While studying the Roman Empire, freshman humanities students design a Web page in which they use Flash technology to create motion, such as making an arrow “shoot” over a wall onto a new screen by incorporating physics and math concepts. And in McClendon’s Principles of Engineering class, students construct mousetrap cars from scratch, each of which must travel at a designated speed and stop at an assigned distance.
“We are teaching students problem-solving skills,” McClendon says of the school’s project-based learning environment. “When you get out into the real world, there are very few problems you have to solve where you can find the answer in a textbook.”
Throughout their education, students record and present their projects through a personal digital portfolio, a Web page that allows them to showcase their best work to college admissions officers, potential employers and even their peers.
“We are not trying to track kids into high-tech careers at an early age,” Daley points out. “We are trying to engage students in meaningful, project-based work and we’ve found that increasing student access to technology is helping us to achieve that goal.”
For Cervantes, who is considering a sociology or psychology major, the exposure to technology at High Tech High has better prepared him for studying on a college campus.
“Although it’s strange not to have a Smart Board in every classroom here,” he admits with a laugh. “I’m not used to seeing a traditional chalkboard!”
fast track to college
With its commitment to integrating technology into the curriculum, it’s no surprise High Tech High is also relying on a technological tool to help students bridge the gap between high school and college. With the Family Connection online resource, students can research a wealth of information about higher education institutions, such as application deadlines, scholarship opportunities and financial aid tips, and even take virtual tours of campuses.
“It brings information quickly to students’ fingertips,” explains Chris White, the school’s director of college advising. “They can actually e-mail a college admissions advisor directly from their account.”
Additionally, with a separate account for each student, Family Connection maintains a comprehensive log of grades, SAT scores, college visit schedules and an acceptance list, while also providing the ability to plot and graph the acceptance history of previous High Tech High graduates.
Explains White: “They can look at a particular college and compare their [profile] to other High Tech applicants to see if there is a high possibility that they will be accepted there.”