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

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

How does the “high tech” part of your name manifest itself inside the classroom?

White: To lead off what I just said in terms of students being able to articulate or present their work: Students are assessed and given a  grade, but they’re not assessed in terms of traditional standardized testingmemorizing information and regurgitating it. Instead, every quarter our students are required to do a presentation of learning, and/or an exposition, where they exhibit their work. The premise behind it all is that when a student is informed that this work is going to be publicly displayed, they’re encouraged to ask themselves, “Am I proud of this work that will be publicly displayed?” And on top of it, we tell them, “You’re going to be in a group of your peers describing your work, so you must have a command of that content.” And of course students get all dressed up and they have their PowerPoint or a website they created to share.

More to the question of how they utilize technology to maximize or display their work: It could be through designing websites, PowerPoints, Photoshop, and all these different tools I can’t even begin describing. That’s where the high tech comes in. It’s not so much generating engineers or computer science experts, it’s really: How do we maximize technology in the education world that you’re in, or out in the professional world?

Is there a K-12-wide focus on moving kids into college?

White: There is a focus on being a college prep environment and its tricky going from a nontraditional project-based learning environment to 99 percent of our students going on to college. A lot of it, because I am the only advisor in a building of 600 students, doing college counseling, does stem from working smarter not harder. We use a college readiness software system called Naviance, which plays a true role in allowing the college prep culture to be built.

Every counselor has a caseload of students split into what I call the three Ms. The top 25 percent, you’d want to manage your time with themthose are the kids that are seeking your help all the time. They’re great students, and a lot of the time counselors like to spend time with these students, but not too much time. The middle 50 percent is make time. You’ve got to make time for those kids being that they’re flying under the radar and doing OK, not causing problems but at the same time, through technology with Naviance, you can help them see they do have higher potential than just getting Bs and Cs. And then the last 25 percent you need to motivate.

When the caseload is that big, how do you organize your time so that you’re efficiently using it? It helps if you can give that top 25 percentile a tool like Naviance, which lets them learn and investigate and research about schools on their own. Yes, you can talk to them about it, but at least when when they’re coming in to talk to you it’s a very efficient conversation where you can get to the heart of their question. It’s comprehensive curriculum that’s grade-level appropriate for building a college-going culture and addressing college-going questions, if you will. In a public school, I can’t get to every kid, especially ninth and tenth graders, and some of them are scared to ask certain questions or maybe not even aware of certain questions to ask.

Do students typically stick with High Tech High from K-12, or do they come and go?

White: I wish I had numbers to really address that but I guess I would say students mostly stay with the system. When we have our freshman orientation, there’s about 15 percent that are not from one of our middle schools. Some of that growth is just due to the fact that we have more spaces at the high school level than at the middle school, so we’re filling in spaces. I would say most of them stay with our learning environment. We’re going to open a new elementary school next fall. We actually have three, and this will be our fourth.

Next page: The biggest challenges and benefits with this model

How does your model typically work with students with learning disabilities or students who are English learners?

White: I’ll start by addressing students with an IEP. The exciting part of that is we see kids that come in with IEPs and over time because of our nontraditional learning environment, we’ll see that they’re not requiring as many of the support services as they once did in a traditional middle school. The reason being is that there is that much more autonomy for our students to do their projects. And that’s what you’ll hear from a lot of our students. They describe their education experience as being engaged, and parents, importantly, are more engaged in education than they ever have been. We give students the end result and goal or the objective of the project, but within that they can shape the topic they’re researching, so they’re ultimately engaged because it’s a personal choice that they made.

For English language learners or first-generation students, it’s certainly a work in progress, but I feel that one of our assets is that we’re centrally located. We’re not in an area that’s quote-unquote claimed as an affluent area as opposed to a non-affluent area. It’s kind of neutral ground. So kids that are taking public transportation don’t feel like they’re traveling into one of the more affluent areas, and vice-versa. We’ve been able to maintain a socio-economic balance in our schools, and I feel that helps to provide a support environment for English language learners.

The other piece, and this refers to the non-ability grouping, which is a term that we use often in our schools, is that we obviously don’t offer APs for the reason that, in a traditional public school, if you pull out all those AP students and put them into separate classes then you’re kind of creating an isolated bubble. And then what kind of statement is that sending to the other students who aren’t in the AP classes? What does that say about what they are they capable of doing? Are they thinking, “Well, I’m not an AP student so this is where I belong. I’m not on the college track.” So we put all the students mixed together. Students can chose to do the honors option in a classwhich does add additional weight to the GPAbut they’re all mixed in. So that has provided those first-generation students with motivation. When the English language learners are in the same class or the same group as students who might otherwise be on that AP track, that environment helps bring up the students who are ELs. We’re saying, “Here’s the environment that we want you to learn in, and we’re going to provide you with all the support we can to get you to that point.”

For students, what are some of the biggest challenges in a system like yours?

White: The traditional learning environment prepares kids for the first year of college. The High Tech High educational experience prepares students for the last years of college and beyond. If you think about more of a traditional college experience you may have had, you go to career services, you start doing presentations, internships, networking toward the end.

In a High Tech High experience, there’s not a particular focus on saying, “You’re going to be a computer engineer,” it’s more about something that’s becoming more popular in education nowthe non-cognitives, the soft skills. You have SAT scores and grades, which colleges think are good barometers in terms of finding out where students are at content wise, but these non-cognitives are very important for success and grit and perseverance. And how do you measure those? There is research that suggests that students that have those, will be successful not just in college but beyond. The High Tech High experience really emphasizes those. Whether it be a student that’s just nervous getting in front of a group and they have to develop that skill set, to students who don’t just think, “I think I’m good at math so I should be going into engineering,” but rather, “I’m good at math and engineering and I want to be an electrical engineer because I’ve been exposed to it.”

When you go into a larger public college, that’s a legitimate challengewhen they go on to one of the 4,000 higher-ed institutions in this country. And some of those schools are closer to project-based learning than not, such as the liberal arts schools. But in larger public school settings, the student is going to have a transitional period, moving quickly through chapters, and taking memorization-based tests. But they get through it. That’s the feedback we get. They transition fully after the first quarter. They have a challenging piece of the transition back to traditional skillsets. They’ve gotten some it in the past but they don’t get as much as their traditional public school peers. It comes back around by their junior year.

I also believe in challenging our students in freshman year of college to go and talk to their professors about research opportunities over the summer, and they do, actually. It’s really cool. That’s just part of their process of education for them: This is what education is about. You go out into a lab, if that’s what you want to do, and we hear good news that our kids, earlier than the average students, are getting research opportunities or internships from the universities or collegeseven in traditional settings.

Sign up for our K-12 newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at

eSchool News uses cookies to improve your experience. Visit our Privacy Policy for more information.