My Visit to High Tech High in San Diego

(Sorry in advance for the long post. For the tl;dr see the photos at the end!)

I’ve promised a few that I’ve talked to that I would blog about my experiences last week at High Tech High in San Diego. The idea of adding a San Diego sojourn started when I came across this video while preparing a presentation on the changing nature of technology:

 

When I did some more research on High Tech High and its beliefs and culture it was a place I just had to see. Knowing I was coming on this trip I checked the calendar, travel details and HTH available tour dates. It all fell into place. I sent a few emails back and forth and before I knew it I was going!

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It was an amazing professional experience. I got more out of the experience than I ever thought I would. The tour of HTH was unorthodox – in keeping with most everything they do. The tour I took was a little unique and not like their other tours. The week I visited was their last week of the academic calendar. The place wasn’t much different, I daresay, to any of our schools in Australia during the last week of the year. High School students were out on a park green between buildings playing soccer, firing up a grill and making hotdogs, and singing classic Green Day!

The students of High Tech High were also participating in something they call Presentation of Learning (POL) and, in a nutshell, this is the way students demonstrate what they have learnt over the course of the school year in any format they desire. They present to a panel of teachers and peers that they’ve personally invited to attend. I think this creates a culture of reflective, critical thinking. It was great to see these presentations going on around the campus. Even the kindergarten classes had a form of this, with parents invited on the final day to walk around classes and witness their child’s learning.

High Tech High’s organisational structure and demographics of student (and staff) population is really interesting. The school is a public charter school, and the campus I visited is made up of seven schools all with a slightly different ‘flavour’. There are two Elementary schools, two Middle Schools (one with a Media Arts flavour), and three High Schools (another with a Media Arts flavour and one with an International flavour). Each school is run by a ‘Director’ who is responsible for hiring and firing, budgets and general management. Pastoral care, student wellbeing and day-to-day operations are managed by the Dean of Students. Overseeing all seven schools is the CEO of the campus. Beyond that there are no more layers of management. No heads of department or learning areas, no curriculum leaders, deputies, etc. Very flat org structure!

The school has a high level of school provided lunches (which translates into about 50% of students living at or below the poverty line). This is significant, and when you look at the statistics of students that actually get accepted into college and university, most often as the first in their family to do so, it is impressive to see what they are achieving.

To attend High Tech High students complete an application process, and a lottery system is used based on postcode. There are also other factors such as whether an applicant has siblings attending. On the rare occasion students are asked to leave if they don’t fit the HTH ‘model’ or are unwilling to try and fit.

Part of my time at HTH involved a student tour. A fantastic Year 9 student named Blake took me around the campus, and talked about his experiences. He would light up talking about the change from a traditional private school to the HTH public charter model. He felt empowered by the college style of responsibility placed on students, and really felt like he was being encouraged to develop his passions in the sciences as well as creative outlets such as photography and videography. HTH also doesn’t use exams or tests to assess students, and Blake loved that part of HTH (who wouldn’t!) but felt a lot less pressure in the lead up to the end of the year. Once I’d had the tour from Blake they let me loose (called the ‘rule of two feet’ – follow your feet to where you think you might learn something) and I was able to talk to teachers around the campus and take lots of photos!

The big ‘thing’ that HTH does really well is Project Based Learning (PBL). Each teacher is responsible for coming up with their own ‘project’, and they’d normally run about four projects per class per year. The teachers work hard to ensure that the projects they craft addresses curriculum requirements as well as receiving the HTH treatment through a process called ‘Project Tuning’ which is basically a way for colleagues to give planned projects feedback (HTH loves reflection and feedback).

I could keep going on and on! I’ve got some great resources on PBL and there’s heaps of other really interesting tidbits (no PE department, no/minimal libraries, intensive staff hiring day including student panels, simple timetables with 2-3 subjects per day, no final grade on projects, presentation evenings to engage parents and families, displays of student work EVERYWHERE, students requiring learning support aren’t pulled from class, no explicit homework, no textbooks)

If you’d like to hear more come and ask me. I’d highly recommend a visit/tour in the future and I’ll provide contact information to anyone interested.

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