At the end of a dimly lit corridor in the heart of the Academy of Information Technology and Engineering (AITE), a 450-student public high school in Stamford, Conn., a student stares into a camera lens. The wall behind him is plastered with dull green paper ripped from a giant spool in a nearby art classroom.

Two feet away, one of his classmates stoops behind a tripod, barking orders. He fusses with a small handheld camcorder, as a third student stands on a chair in a futile attempt to optimize the overhead lighting.

It might not look like much, say the students–not yet. But very soon, this ragtag movie set will be the birthplace of a short film chronicling a police inspector’s globetrotting pursuit of a notorious jewel thief. Like the blue screens made famous by big-budget Hollywood blockbusters such as the Matrix trilogy, George Lucas’s Star Wars, and other largely computer-generated classics, the unremarkable green backdrop serves as a sort of digital canvas, enabling the students–each of whom is enrolled in a class designed to teach the finer points of digital media arts–to test their creative boundaries.

Once they’ve captured the scene before the backdrop, the production team will hunker down in a nearby computer lab, where they’ll employ a combination of software programs to digitally set the scene’s surroundings–in this case, using Apple’s Final Cut Pro software to drop in cultural images associated with several African nations, creating the appearance of a manhunt on the Serengeti.

At first blush, the production might seem a little crude, and–students will be the first to admit–the conditions are anything but optimal. But even amid such straight-to-DVD surroundings, they say, the skills they’re gleaning through the use of these and other technologies at AITE will better prepare them for the future, a future in which blue-chip employers–including several of Hollywood’s foremost production studios–are as committed to recruiting tech-savvy employees as they are to pleasing their shareholders.

Principal Paul Gross says the goal is to better equip students by giving them hands-on experience with technology, encouraging them to work in teams, and helping them attain the skills that business leaders agree are needed for success in the modern workforce.

Gross, along with educator and longtime advisor Christine Casey, helped launch AITE in 2000, looking to give students in Stamford and its surrounding community an alternative high school where they could explore emerging fields of study and pursue interests often ignored in the more traditional curricula of the city’s other two high schools.

AITE isn’t the only high school with an eye toward technology. Across the nation, more schools are cropping up with a high-tech focus. Last year, the City of Philadelphia celebrated the grand opening of its School of the Future, a $63 million, high-tech sanctuary for students in one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods. Designed in partnership with software giant Microsoft Corp., that institution was built as a model that potentially could be replicated throughout the city–and, if all goes well, organizers contend, the nation. (See ‘School of the Future’ opens doors)

In cities such as San Diego and Los Angeles, students continue to attend a growing number of “High-Tech High Schools,” a chain of charter schools that emphasize project-based learning and technology integration as a way to better prepare students for the 21st century. That program currently operates nine schools–six high schools, two elementary schools, and one middle-school campus–throughout southern California. Of the system’s approximately 2,500 students, administrators report that 100 percent of graduates go on to college, with 80 percent attending four-year institutions. (See New ‘high-tech’ high schools aim to transform learning)

But despite the proliferation of these and other similar institutions, Gross says, what sets AITE apart are the circumstances under which it has succeeded: Whereas dozens of so-called “high-tech” schools have opened their doors in recent years, many in extravagant buildings, and often to great fanfare, teachers and students at AITE have had to work their way into the good graces of the local community–practicing creative budgeting and old-fashioned willpower to turn an ordinary school building into an extraordinary opportunity for students.

Getting there hasn’t been easy. Though the state of Connecticut and the local community have contributed significant financial capital to help establish the magnet school–which attracts students not only from Stamford, but from other districts as well–the government’s contribution covers only about one-third of the school’s total operating budget each year, Gross said.

The money helps, he says–any source of funding helps. But for a school as ambitious as AITE, administrators knew early on they’d have to look beyond the local line-item budget.

In search of additional sources of funding, administrators began applying for state and federal grants, winning at least two awards that helped foot the bill for a myriad of high-tech amenities, including tablet PCs from Hewlett-Packard Co. for every child and school-wide wireless internet connectivity. Grant money also reportedly helped pay for additional staff development programs–initiatives Gross credits for helping AITE expand its curriculum and its overall use of technology.

But even grants can take a school only so far. Using a 40-year-old building they share with a neighborhood middle school, students and teachers at AITE are not accustomed to such luxuries as specially designed furniture, energy-efficient classrooms, and other architectural perks that often are associated with many of the nation’s more modern facilities.

At AITE, students’ desks are footed with tennis balls, so they can more easily be maneuvered into groups. The school has no television studio, and no futuristic classrooms outfitted with digital interactive whiteboards and other high-cost devices; throughout the building, light and heat seep from old windows and poor insulation.

Although much of that likely will change when the school moves into a brand-new, $43 million, 120,000-sqare-foot facility next year–an upgrade made possible only because the school has proven its merits–there is a lesson to be gleaned from the school’s humble beginnings, Gross says: “It’s just high school,” he explains, as if reciting some sort of personal mantra.

Whether you have an old building or a gleaming new facility, the key to running a successful 21st-century school lies not primarily in the pizzazz of the latest technologies, but in the ability of teachers to make effective use of the resources at hand. What it comes down to, more than anything, says Gross, is the will to change. And if it can be done here, AITE leaders say, it can be done anywhere.

21st-century skills

One way AITE hopes to better prepare its students is through cultivating important, so-called “21st century” skills. Rather than have teachers blandly lecture students on topics from British literature to U.S. history, Gross encourages his staff to work as facilitators, bringing students together in teams to solve problems revolving around real-world scenarios.

Michelle Pusser, a social studies teacher in her first year at AITE, said the opportunity to teach in a project-based environment was what attracted her to the school.

“Everything we do here is student-centric, as opposed to teacher-centric,” she said.

Working in a school where each student and every teacher has access to his or her own wireless tablet PC, teachers have the ability–and the freedom–to create situations where students routinely collaborate with classmates to complete assignments and turn in work.

Social studies teacher Claude Morest introduced a lesson on the Harlem Renaissance by having students work in groups to create interactive multimedia presentations profiling the period’s most influential writers and poets. Students used everything from simple PowerPoint slides to audio and video clips spliced together with the aid of Microsoft’s MovieMaker, a downloadable software program available free of charge online, to bring their subjects to life.

Junior Erronique Whyte said one of her favorite projects of the semester was partnering with classmates to create an interactive video about jazz singer Bessie Smith. Apart from the opportunity to learn about Smith’s life, Whyte–an aspiring lawyer–said the exercise also gave her an opportunity to experiment with the kinds of technologies she suspects will benefit her in the years ahead.

“You have to learn technology in this school,” she said. “When used appropriately, technology makes learning so much more convenient.”

Down the hall, art and architectural design instructor Darin Tomaszewski strolls through a darkened classroom. On either side of him, students stare into computer screens, their faces tattooed with geometric shapes and images bouncing off the monitors in front of them. The program, Tomaszewski explains, is called AutoCAD, an architectural design tool from software maker Autodesk. Their assignment: to design their very own dream homes.

Though Tomaszewski’s architectural design course culminates with students using the software to draft professional blueprints, he said, students spend the first half of the semester working with slide rules and drafting paper, learning–with their hands–how to master the tools of the trade. Only when they’ve conquered the basics does he let them move on to the computer.

“In every project, I try to prepare students for what they might face in their careers,” he said.

And Tomaszewski is not alone. A quick glance through the AITE course catalog reveals a Chinese menu of options, many of which aren’t typically offered in traditional high schools. Apart from core disciplines such as English, math, science, and social studies, which every AITE student must take for four years, the school also requires that students take four years of a foreign language. Options include the usual suspects, such as French, Spanish, and Latin–but the school also offers Mandarin Chinese, Russian, and Arabic.

Students also can enroll in a wide array of advanced technical courses, such as robotics and civil engineering, newspaper writing for the web, advertising design, geographic information systems, or web site production, among other electives.

As part of their experience at AITE, students can select between two academic “concentrations”: information technologies (IT) or architectural and engineering.

The IT concentration is designed to expose students to the basics of computers and programming. Students enrolled in this strand also can take a variety of professional certification courses offered by the Cisco Networking Academy, Oracle, and other providers. Similarly, the architectural and engineering strand enables aspiring engineers to mix core studies with advanced courses in design and manufacturing. Educators say these strands are intended to give students a competitive advantage heading into more rigorous, college-level courses.

Looking to expand the breadth of its course options further still, AITE also sponsors its own Virtual High School. These fully online courses are moderated by teachers stationed throughout the United States and, in some cases, the world. Technology Coordinator Jeanne Lauer, who facilitates the virtual school, said the online program was established to give overachievers a chance to take more advanced courses, while providing additional options, such as creative writing, for other students if they can’t find what they’re looking for within the building itself.

This year, Lauer said, at least 15 students are taking courses that aren’t offered at AITE on a regular basis through the virtual school.

Virtual learning has proved a real boon for some students, she said, but experience has taught them the online model isn’t for everyone.

“You need to be an independent learner and have good time-management skills,” stressed Lauer. If students prove unable to manage their time effectively on their own, a teacher or guidance counselor can request that they complete all work for their online course at school, under the guidance of an in-class advisor.

No matter how students prefer to receive their instruction, school officials say, every course contains a strong dose of technology.

Throughout the school, every student has his or her own personal eMail account used to exchange information with teachers and classmates. An electronic drop-box feature lets students deposit homework and other assignments online, using their own tablet PCs. Online projects and digital portfolios are stored on the school’s central network for password-protected access and group collaboration. And a classroom learning portal from eChalk enables each student to go online and access information relevant to his or her course of study.

Though the technology is a big draw for many AITE students, Gross and his staff are adamant in their belief that computers are just a tool. For these resources to be used effectively, he says, teachers and students must understand the point at which sound instruction and technology meet.

Operating under the assumption that only so much learning can take place inside the classroom, AITE also works with local businesses to provide students with internships and other opportunities to help them apply their newfound knowledge in a professional setting.

After coming to AITE with little knowledge, or interest, in web site design, senior Bryant Irby has gone on to develop and manage a web site for Soundwaters, a Stamford-based nonprofit dedicated to educating students and the public about Long Island Sound and its surrounding watershed. And 10th-grader Scott Preston, who enrolled in AITE for his interest in web design and computers, recently was contracted by the city government to help redesign part of its web site.

Andrew Kostin, a junior who plans to apply for an internship program through UBS, the international investment firm and a major employer in the Stamford area, said he sees himself as an entrepreneur. His goal: to one day head a Fortune 500 company.

“It’s possible,” said Gross with a smile. After all, “it’s only high school.”