High Tech High-Los Angeles (HTH-LA), a new charter school that boasts some of the most advanced technologies ever used in the classroom, is up and running within the Los Angles Unified School District (LAUSD).

For Roberta Weintraub, the former LAUSD school board president and education activist, it was a dream four years in the making. Stocked with every type of educational technology imaginable, from interactive whiteboards to robotics labs and wireless laptop computers, HTH-LA was designed to provide students with a glimpse into their future, Weintraub said–a sort of “sneak peek” into what it’s like to live and work in a technology-infused society.

The school is the latest of several cropping up around country designed to reflect the need for technology in the classroom while helping to prepare today’s students for success in tomorrow’s technology-driven workplace.

At High Tech High-Los Angeles, technology is seen as a means–not an end–to get kids engaged in what they’re learning.
(Photo courtesy of High Tech High-LA)

“I realized we were not doing the right thing for our kids,” said Weintraub, who criticized most modern classrooms for continuing to be a reflection of the past. “In the classrooms of today, you still see teachers teaching like it’s 1901,” she said. Problem is, kids don’t learn that way–not anymore.

Thanks to the proliferation of technology in their homes and elsewhere, Weintraub said, today’s students expect some place to plug in when they get to school.

That’s part of the vision at HTH-LA, which seeks to actively engage students by surrounding them with the kinds of technologies and communication devices they’ve grown up with, she said. The goal was to build a school where technology is so ubiquitous that students might be inclined to reach for their computers just as quickly as they would for a pencil or a piece of notebook paper.

Housed on a slice of land it shares with neighboring Birmingham High School, the intimate $13 million campus–which was bankrolled with a combination of state grant money and donations from the Lowell Milken Family Foundation–currently enrolls 200 students, with enrollments expected to cap at 325 by the beginning of next year. Though the school actually opened in 2002, construction of the building itself wasn’t completed until November. Before that, students conducted their learning in portable classrooms and across the lawn at the Birmingham building.

Inside, technology is everywhere. Among the many benefits students have access to are desktop and wireless laptop computers, video-editing software, robotics equipment, personal eMail accounts, digital projectors for every room, VCRs, DVD players, and interactive whiteboards. The building even is equipped with cutting-edge “smart” technologies used to regulate heating and air conditioning and automatically adjust lighting in rooms, as well as zoom-capable security cameras that let administrators keep an eye on the hallways and school parking lots, among other potential trouble spots.

The technology is provided through donations and contracts with several leading vendors, including Apple, Cisco Systems, Educate Inc., Hewlett Packard, IBM, Laureate Education, Lexmark, Microsoft, NEC Unified, Oracle, Time Warner, Toshiba, and Verizon.

In terms of equipment, “There isn’t anything we don’t have,” boasted Weintraub, who anticipates it will take a while for teachers and students to get acclimated with the various technologies. But then, she said, that’s what learning is all about.

Even with all the innovations, HTH-LA Principal Marsha Rybin–a former Birmingham administrator–says nothing is for show. If it belongs to the school, Rybin said, educators are free–indeed, encouraged–to integrate it into their lesson plans.

A main focus of the high school is to explore the effectiveness of more project-based learning opportunities for students. Instead of just sitting in a classroom and taking notes, HTH-LA students are encouraged to participate in group projects designed to simulate real-life experiences.

In an interview with eSchool News, Rybin recalled one project earlier this year in which teams of students were charged with concocting, marketing, and selling their own beverage as part of a school-wide contest, appropriately called “Iron Chef.”

The multidisciplinary project combined technology-based learning with skills from math, science, English, and social studies curricula to help simulate the kind of task students might encounter had they been working in the business world instead of sweating it out for a grade.

That’s really what HTH-LA is all about, she added: Using technology as a means–not an end–to get kids interested in what they’re doing in the classroom.

“Kids are fearless experimenters,” she said. “They just try it … They know the technology isn’t going to blow up in their faces.”

Outside the realm of traditional disciplines, students at HTH-LA also are given an opportunity to hone their technical skills. The school serves as an incubator for future IT technicians, providing classes and on-site guidance for students in search of their Cisco A-Plus and Network Plus Certifications, as well as separate courses for aspiring Microsoft Certified Professionals and Microsoft Office User Specialists.

And the emphasis on real-world experience goes well beyond the four walls of the classroom, too. Students enrolled in the progressive high school also are required to participate in a unique student internship program that matches them with industry mentors from the business world–an experience that can go a long way in helping them find success down the road, Rybin said.

HTH-LA founders also hope the school will serve as a test bed for the use of new technologies across the district. It isn’t likely that the district’s larger schools, including neighboring Birmingham with its 4,000 students, will be able to replicate all of the technologies used at HTH-LA, but Weintraub said she hopes educators stationed at the other buildings will stay clued into what’s going on. Even if they can’t replicate everything, she said, there’s bound to be a few innovations worth pursuing on a larger scale.

With the advent of No Child Left Behind, several teachers across the country have complained the law’s stiff test-score requirements have stymied their ability to be creative in the classroom. At HTH-LA, however, innovation and creativity are integral. So how do educators at HTH-LA deal with the push and pull that goes on between creativity and efficiency in relation to NCLB mandates?

“It is a difficult balance,” acknowledged Rybin. “At HTH-LA, teachers make sure that the content standards are embedded in the projects they design. It takes a lot of planning, reflection, and revision.”

At any level, she said, the philosophy is only as good as the people who are charged with making it work.

Though none of the school’s teachers are required to have specific technology skills, Rybin said, they are expected to embrace technology as a tool for learning and to keep an open mind as to how new approaches might improve the quality of instruction for their students.

The school also has the luxury of a full-time IT staff, whose job it is to make sure teachers receive the in-service training they need and to keep the technology up and running, no matter what.

When it comes to troubleshooting, “you need someone to deal with the various problems,” Rybin said.

Technology is everywhere at High Tech High-Los Angeles. The school has desktop and wireless laptop computers, video-editing software, robotics equipment, digital projectors, DVD players, and interactive whiteboards.
(Photo courtesy of High Tech High-LA)

Whether it’s a system meltdown or a glitch in the eMail server, both students and teachers can submit work orders to the IT department, which pledges to have the problem fixed within 24 hours of each time-stamped ticket, she said.

Security is another issue. With wired and wireless internet access around every corner, teachers and administrators have to be on their toes in making sure students aren’t tempted to stray into the darker corners of cyberspace, Rybin said. Filters and centralized security management can only do so much; students also have to take responsibility for their actions, she said.

“We have a pretty tough acceptable-use policy,” Rybin said. “You can’t fail your way out of High Tech High, but you can behave your way out.”

On a first offense, students who are found to be in violation of the school’s acceptable-use policy–which includes illegally accessing lewd or inappropriate content–are subject to a number of sanctions, such as loss of network privileges and increased supervision of technology use. Upon a second offense, she said, students might be asked to leave the school.

Who can attend this high-tech high school of the future? That’s the best part, said Rybin. Any student in the district is allowed to attend, as long as they apply and there are spots available. And enrollment is free.

Though administrators originally flirted with the idea of enrollment requirements such as a minimum 2.3 GPA, they eventually decided against it. “I imagine anyone could do great work with great students,” said Rybin, who prefers keeping the doors open to students of all different backgrounds and interests.

The good thing about technology, she said, is that it can be an amazing motivator, even for some of the most difficult students.

Thanks to its distinction as a “dependent” charter school, HTH-LA remains a part of the larger LAUSD system, which means, among other things, that the school is connected to the district’s high-speed internet backbone.

“It really gets the best of both worlds,” said LAUSD technology chief Megan Klee. The school’s teachers are district employees, a benefit that saves HTH-LA administrators from the bureaucratic morass of payroll and health insurance, for example, giving them more time to focus on what is happening in the classroom, Klee said.

HTH-LA isn’t the first school of its kind.

The concept was actually born at a school in San Diego. The school’s success eventually led to the creation of the High Tech High Foundation, whose founders set out to replicate San Diego’s success in communities across California and the United States. According to the High Tech High Foundation web site, there are at least 11 similar schools operating in districts across the country today. In November, just as construction was wrapping up on the Los Angeles project, school officials in Philadelphia broke ground on a new high-tech school to be built in partnership with Microsoft.

The School of the Future, set to open in 2006, will cost more than $50 million. Funding for the project is provided by the Philadelphia School District’s capital program with additional support and technical assistance through Microsoft’s Partners in Learning initiative.

City officials said the public high school will enroll about 750 students, who will encounter such features as one-to-one computing in a wireless environment, smart cards they can use for everything from the cafeteria to an interactive learning center, a home and school broadband internet connection, and a digital format for all paperwork and school-related assignments.

In the front office, teachers and administrators will reap the benefits of technology through instant access to student assessment progress, as well as the addition of web-based procurement and online human resources tools for time reporting and payroll management.

In addition to its technological features, the architectural structure of the school will support its mission of creating a better learning environment. A futuristic performance center will us moveable seating so auditorium-type settings can be easily converted hydraulically to settings suitable for small work groups. Classrooms will be flexible, too, with minimal fixed assets and audio enhancement systems, according to a statement about the building’s design.

And, as part of the commitment to developing high-performance yet sustainable learning environments, the building itself is being developed in accordance with the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System. The school will be eco-friendly, using natural lighting, water conservation and recycling, and cabinets made from the few trees that had to be removed from the site.

Blending these learning and architectural design elements, photoelectric glass will not only generate a portion of the building’s power supply but also will transmit real-time data for students so they can see how much energy is being generated and the positive impact on the environment.

“By using the tools of today to improve our education system, we can better prepare our students for tomorrow,” said Paul Vallas, CEO of the School District of Philadelphia. “The true integration of technology and training that will take place here in Philadelphia will create the connections and partnerships necessary to develop the 21st-century skills of our students.”

Back on the West Coast, Weintraub said the purpose of building a technology-rich school isn’t necessarily just to wow people; it’s to get them thinking about their future–and what’s possible.

“It really is a wonderful example both technologically and from every standpoint imaginable of what could be done,” she said of the LA project. “Schools used to think they could succeed without technology. Well, they can’t any longer.”

Links:

High-Tech High Los Angeles

High-Tech High Foundation

Los Angeles Unified School District

School District of Philadelphia