As part of a project-based learning initiative in Charlotte County Public Schools, I had the opportunity to travel to San Diego, California, recently to visit High Tech High (HTH). HTH is a public, socio-economically-representative charter school based around the idea of authentic, individualized, project-based learning that is applicable to and connected to the real world.
Two things primarily impressed me about the experience. The first was that their success was not magic. I had gone out there expecting to see NASA-level classrooms and cutting-edge technology that a rural school division would have no hope of replicating. On the contrary, there was very little technology present or in use. Instead, there was rigor and high expectations that helped create a focus and culture of academic success. They did not interrupt the day with non-academic things (no PA, bells, etc…). Their faculties met every morning and dealt with educational issues like reflection vs. content. Teachers used their planning periods to help other teachers and collaborate with other classes. The students’ projects were of a high quality and demonstrated true thought and reflection (one of their project axioms–You can’t have “hands on” without “heads on.”) This excited me because their success came not from things but from focus. With the exception of a handful of constraints, there were very few things at HTH that could not be done at any school in the country if the foundation was laid to create that kind of culture and expectation.
From an administrative standpoint, one interesting conversation that I had was with the CEO of HTH, Larry Rosenstock. Using the idea that it is often easier to build something from scratch than it is to remodel, I asked him what he would suggest doing if one were to try to “remodel” a school as opposed to creating one from the ground-up. His suggestion was to start by looking closely at the school and seeing what things contribute or detract from the culture you are hoping to create. Keep the things that help create that culture and change the things that do not.
Ultimately, I was struck by the basic idea behind the school and the leadership it represents. It was as if someone had been a fly on the wall in every teacher’s lounge, kitchen, and employment office in America for decades; had listened to all of the gripes about what is wrong with public education today; and had addressed each one. While I am not yet a huge proponent of charter schools and what their rise may mean for public education, it was refreshing to see everything that we as educators have always thought that education could and should be put into action. I applaude the leadership and vision that it took to step forward and address the things that many have seen needed addressing for years. At the same time, even though changing things in public education is like turning the Titanic, it is invigorating to be part of local leadership that is undertaking this task as well.
If you would like to see more of what High Tech High is about, go to www.hightechhigh.org