New ‘high-tech’ high schools aim to transform learning

From San Diego to Philadelphia, a new model for the high school of the future—one that is smaller, looks like the modern workplace, and integrates technology into a project-based curriculum—is emerging, and its developers claim it’s better at preparing students for the global economy.

This new model is “organized from the start around ensuring that students are ready for the new-world economy,” said Mark S. Morrison, principal and director of the New Technology High School in Napa, Calif. New Tech High, which opened its doors in September 1996, is fundamentally different than the traditional American high school.

“When you walk into our building, you see what you would see when you walk into a high-tech business,” Morrison said. “You would see people working in clusters and not in rows.” The school has lots windows and open space. There’s a one-to-one ratio of students to computers.

“Cable tracks, which hold all the data lines and network lines, run beneath the ceiling,” Morrison said. “They’re exposed [so] you can see the network running through the building.”

Scot Steward, president and CEO of the New Technology Foundation, which was formed a year ago to raise extra money for the New Technology High School, said, “We have no bells, no class changes; all our walls are glass. It’s basically built as if it [were] a high-tech company.”

He added, “Our students are treated like employees.” On the first day, students receive their own eMail addresses and web sites.

The school teaches only the last two years of high school and enrolls only 240 students. To qualify to attend New Tech High, students must have a 2.0 grade point average at the end of grade 10 and have passed algebra I.

The curriculum is project-based. Subjects such as mathematics, English, history, and economics are integrated to help students make connections between them.

“We’ve got great data in a number of buckets that show tremendous success in achievement,” Morrison said. “Our kids are achieving at high levels on national tests.”

Students have to master eight skill sets before they can graduate: collaboration, problem-solving, oral communication, written communication, career-building, technological literacy, citizenship and ethics, and content literacy. Like most kids, when these students graduate, they’ll either go onto post-secondary education or directly into work.

Serious discipline problems don’t exist, Morrison said. “We’ve never had a fight in five years; we’ve never had graffiti in five years.” Nothing in the school is locked down, and nothing has been stolen, he added.

“I’ve had to deal with some hacking issues and some inappropriate uses of our network,” Morrison said. “Compared to health and safety issues, those are nice problems to have.”

The school also boasts a 99-percent attendance rate. “Our kids see value in our school, so they show up every day,” he said.

The school population is fairly diverse: 38 percent of students are female, 13 percent take part in the free or reduced-price lunch program, and 10 percent are classified as special-needs students. “There was a great fear that these schools would be boy-geek schools,” Morrison said.

After deciding that schools should be organized differently, the Napa Valley community came together and initiated the development of the New Tech High in 1992 through public and private partnerships, Morrison said.

The school did not receive any state funding this year, but it does receive per-pupil funding from the Napa Valley Unified School District like the other public schools in the district, he said. The school’s foundation raises extra money to help maintain and update computers, because this requires more funding than the average school receives from the district.

The New Technology Foundation just received $4.9 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to replicate the New Tech High model 10 times in northern California, Steward said. Once that has been accomplished, the foundation will replicate the model school in every state across the country, he said.

San Diego’s High Tech High

A San Diego charter school called High Tech High, which opened in September, also mirrors a workplace environment and integrates technology into a project-based curriculum. Not coincidentally, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also donated $6.4 million to the High Tech High Foundation to create 10 more versions of this school.

At this modern facility, located at San Diego’s Naval Training Center, each student has his or her own workstation in addition to classroom, lab, and group workspace. The hours are from 9 to 4, and the day is divided into two blocks instead of 50-minute periods.

“It looks a lot more like a workplace than a school,” said John Shea, chief operations officer and dean of students. Two students share one workstation equipped with an L-shaped desk, a computer, file cabinet, drawers, and bulletin board space. The way the school day is structured, one student has access to the workstation for half the day while the other student is in other parts of the school, and then they rotate.

The school has a project studio, seminar rooms, computer animation lab, video lab, a biology lab, and an engineering lab where students actually build the stuff they design, Shea said. The rooms are equipped with SMART boards—interactive whiteboards—instead of chalkboards, and tables and chairs instead of desks.

High Tech High is primarily focused on science, math, and engineering education; humanities subjects, such as reading and writing, are focused around science-, math-, and engineering-related projects. Students who apply to the school have to demonstrate an interest in those subjects.

“Students focus on real questions and real-world problems,” Shea said. In one of the projects, students assemble their own computers. Traditional school subjects emerge as needed when students work through the assignments.

In grades 11 and 12, students attend off-site internships twice a week, reinforcing the school’s emphasis on the high-tech workplace. “Kids learn best when they are immersed in adult environments and when they are immersed in problem-based learning,” Shea said.

“Our first trimester has been punctuated by making changes and really getting to know our students,” Shea said. “Integrated curriculum requires that the teachers have the time to plan well and to get to know each other. Working well together is critical.”

Philadelphia’s Tech High

Scott Gordon of Philadelphia is leading an initiative to create a charter school, called Tech High, that also will look like a typical workplace and integrate technology into a project-based curriculum.

“We will replicate many elements of High Tech High’s design,” said Gordon, who is waiting to see if the Philadelphia School District will approve the charter school application.

At Tech High, students will use typical office software and graphic design software to complete schoolwork, and they’ll have workstations instead of lockers and project rooms for design work. There will be space for students to work in teams or independently.

“It’s more like flexible business workspace than traditional classroom space, where you’re locked in,” Gordon said.

The school will be divided into four levels with seven teachers who stay with each level until graduation. One of the seven teachers is a master teacher. “The purpose is to create a small, personalized relationship with adult staff members,” Gordon said.

Students do better in small, personalized learning environments, he said. This model also holds each teaching team directly responsible for student outcomes. “Our staff will receive bonuses based on student outcomes,” he said.

The goal is for students to learn nine specific skill sets before being eligible to graduate, Gordon said. The skills include math, reading, writing, science, speaking, problem-solving, personal skills, and interpersonal skills. “We haven’t done our job unless students have mastered those skills,” he said.

Students will take from three to six years to graduate.

“We expect our students are going to have a range of skill levels when they enter our school,” Gordon said, so flexibility is paramount. “Taking more time to finish recognizes that it takes some students longer to attain those skills.”

Tech High will operate on a modified year-round calendar. There will be a five-week summer vacation and several inter-sessions throughout the year that, depending on the students’ needs, will be used for vacation, internship, or remedial tutoring.

A new model for learning

So, what’s behind this new trend of high-tech high schools?

“I don’t think it’s a trend. I think it’s how high schools are going to have to happen,” Morrison said. “We have to embrace the idea that all kids can achieve at all levels, given the opportunity and resources.”

Gordon said there are problems with high school education across the country. “We are not reaching students and they’re not learning,” he said. Students are not coming out prepared for a technological world.

“We are hoping the school district will approve our charter, because we are doing many of the things reformers in the district are doing,” Gordon added. “We have the opportunity to build a school from scratch and implement those principles from the beginning.”

Gordon said there is a growing movement in education to make learning more hands-on and project-based.

“I don’t think there are many thinking adults in our country who are happy with the status quo of high schools,” said William L. Rukeyser, coordinator of Learning in the Real World, which is skeptical of the value of technology in education. “So, change is good.”

But Rukeyser is not sold on the idea that technology is the sole reason these schools are successful.

“Project-based education can be done with or without computers,” Rukeyser said. “Just because you like reform doesn’t mean you’ll like a high-tech school. Just because you like project-based learning doesn’t mean you’ll like a high-tech school.”

He also questions the motives of the companies investing in these high-tech schools.

“It’s simply in light of self-interest,” Rukeyser said. “There’s a long tradition of companies taking an interest in schools” to build the next generation of consumers and employees.

These community-based initiatives often are driven or supported by high-tech companies, he pointed out. San Diego’s High Tech High, for example, started with a $3 million gift from Gary Jacobs, son of the founder of Qualcomm Corp.

“It’s going to turn out good for some and not good for others,” Rukeyser said. “Anyone who has spent any time in education knows there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution.”


New Tech High

High Tech High

Tech High

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Learning in the Real World

eSchool News Staff

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