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Inside the schools where college prep and project-based learning go hand-in-hand

By Stephen Noonoo, Editor, @stephenoonoo
May 28th, 2015

A PBL approach is making strides at a system where 99 percent of students go to college

college-prepHigh Tech Highthe San Diego-based charter-school system comprised of five high schools and eight total elementary and middle schoolslikes to think of itself as something of an outlier. It boasts that 99 percent of its students matriculate to higher education (and 82 percent graduate), but it has no AP courses. It counts college prep as one of its strongest assets, but rejects Carnegie units and the traditional testing still commonplace in many of today’s universities. Rather, at High Tech High, the focus is on integrated project-based learning that aims to prepare students for the last years of collegenot the first.

It’s an unusual approach, but it appears to be paying off. The system is expanding (recently, it added an elementary school), colleges are gaining favorable impressions of the model, and a forthcoming documentary profiling the system, Most Likely to Succeed, from director Greg Whiteley (Mitt), is landing favorably at film festivals. Recently, HTH’s director of college advising, Chris White, spoke with us about what his schools look like, their approach to technology,  and preparing all students for success.

How receptive are colleges and universities to this rather innovative model?

Chris White: Very receptive. The bottom line is colleges and universities are looking for fresh insight and fresh perspective in their classrooms. And our project-based curriculum lends itself to that. I’ve been here 13 years, and having been on the admissions side of the desk for many years, that was clearly my goal, and is my current goal, to continue to educate universities about our non-traditional educational environment and how our students are educated and can add value and diversityand not just ethnic diversity but perspective diversityto the classroom.

We’ll have about 130 universities and colleges visit our campus between September and November, and it’s kind of a who’s who of colleges. They will meet with our students and it’s an opportunity for the students to learn about the institutions. I strategically have students share their most current project that they’re working on so that the admissions reps can see depth vs. breadth. The AP is great curriculum but it is more in breadth while we go more into depth. And our students are able to articulate their projects, and colleges and universities tend to get really excited about what the students are working on.

Next page: Where the “high tech” comes in