Report on my visit to High Tech High in San Diego

I was very impressed by Tony Wagner’s account of High Tech High, both in his Global Achievement Gap book and in the video he showed us during his recent Purdue visit, so I decided this is a place I must visit. I took the day tour this past Monday.

I arrived there Monday morning at 9:00. This is a cluster of five buildings surrounding a large open area with playgrounds, basketball hoops, and plenty of green grass. I was looking for a gate, or a fenced place, none appeared. Instead there were several groups of kids playing outside. I went into the building that says High Tech High. It is a very large hangar with high ceilings with art everywhere. There isn’t a single square inch surface that is covered by art; there isn’t a single square inch of ceiling that does not have something dangling from it. The variety is as amazing as the quantity, from paintings, to multi-media arrangements, to musical instruments, to gear systems, to masks. The mood of the place hits you immediately as a place where there is work and joy. Students are going in and out, talking, and laughing, yet they all seem busy and fully engaged in their work. All the classrooms have glass walls or many low windows so I was able to walk around and see most classrooms. None was arranged in the traditional mode with students in rows listening to teacher. They all had the students talking to each other and working with each other.

High Tech High corridorHigh Tech High corridorHigh Tech High corridor

Student art is abundant in High Tech High’s corridors.

At 10:00 our student ambassador came to give us a tour. She is a middle school student. High Tech High is in fact a conglomerate of an elementary school, a middle school, and three high schools. They all have the same philosophy and approach, are run together but also independently. All of them use the same pedagogy and emphasize student independence; students co-design their learning with the faculty. There is a strong emphasis on exhibition of student work. In their view, it stimulates students’ intrinsic motivation, promotes self reflection and assessment, and makes room for all students to contribute in their diversity. The focus on exhibition also promotes collaboration between faculty.

It was very interesting for me to see some of the values we have been talking about all year in action:

1. During our tour, a student opened a classroom and invited us in to observe the senior calculus class which was about to start. We went in. The professor was doing the roll call. When he called a name, others responded, “She is baby sitting.” A few minutes later, a student walks in with a young child on her back. She walked to her table, dropped the child next to her, and got to work. The class proceeded naturally. This is the whole person value in action. Students are accepted with all of their lives and their baggage. Nothing is sliced out or isolated.

High Tech High learning spaceHigh Tech High learning spaceHigh Tech High learning space

High Tech High’s classrooms are very open and airy.

2. While talking to the principal, I mentioned the diversity in their student body. She explained that this is by design. Admission to this charter school is by lottery. They make sure that they are representative of all classes, ethnicities, geographic locations, etc. They take all students irrespective of preparation or scores, yet, by the end, they surpass the most selective schools in the country in their performance. 98% of their graduates go to college. What is even more remarkable, 88% of these actually complete their degree. This is close to three times the national average. Their explanation is that their graduates do not know any more material than others, and they face as many challenges as any other student. The key is that their graduates have grit; they have learned to seek help; they have learned to collaborate; they have learned to trust adults and seek their input and advice. This is really remarkable. And this is the value of access and diversity in action. This is the argument with which I find we face most resistance. It is so refreshing to see that others believed in it and put it in action.

3. I asked how they managed with so many students of all ages roaming around with no gates and no fences. She laughed and said, “Our founder teaches us how to break the rules creatively.” She continued, “With all state and local regulations, you have no idea how many rules we actually break, but our focus is laser sharp on the students and their well being and at the end of the day we end up all winning. We are constantly walking a fine line, though.”

Some other features of what they do: every student is assigned an advisor who stays with them until they graduate. They meet twice a week but in group.

High Tech High runs its own teacher accreditation program. They train their teachers while they are teaching for them. The first year (the entry point) is the hardest for students because they are not used to organizing their time. They do quite a bit of hand holding in those years, and then students pick it up from there.

They have honors and special education but they are integrated together. Students are in the same class, but work is customized.