Saturday, January 11, 2014

Notes From High Tech High Visit

High Tech High Schools: San Diego, CA
January 2014
One Sentence Takeaway: "Failure is the first attempt at learning" -Mr. Ortiguerra

This is a LONG BLOG ENTRY. You could opt to watch this 2009, 15 minute youtube clip with the Larry Rosenstock, CEO of High Tech High instead.

15 whole minutes! (I can hear you screaming from here). That's an eternity on the internet! I know, I know...but if you are interested in education in the 21st will be worth your time. The video captures both the wisdom and feeling at HTH quite well and reading my whole blog entry will probably be even longer than 15 minutes!

Move into full screen mode, relax and enjoy! (Project Based Learning at High Tech High)

High Tech High Blog Entry Intro: This week I managed to get out of the cold weather and into sunny San Diego to visit the High Tech High campus at Point Loma. First things first, High Tech High's name is a bit misleading. Although they do have some standout science programs and standout technology showcases, they are not uniquely focused on technology. Additionally, the original school, founded in 2000, was a high school, thus the the High Tech High portion of the name. The HTH network now expands beyond that first school to include three elementary schools, four middle schools, and five high schools. I visited the original site, in Point Loma (10 minutes to downtown San Diego) which includes High Tech High, High Tech International HS, High Tech Media Arts HS, High Tech Middle, High Tech Middle Media Arts, and Explorer Elementary. The schools are all located within the same city block and are retrofitted military buildings.

High Tech High has about 3,000 visitors per year. President Obama has been known to mention HTH in his education speeches, as it is a bit of a darling amongst the education world. Thus many education pilgrims like myself make the trek to see the schools in person. They had so much interest in their success (99% college bound, 87% college retention rate) and processes that they created a position that responds to and plans for visitors. And they also now have their own HTH graduate program. In additional to the graduate program, they are partners in offering two open source courses. The first is New School Creation in partnership with UC-Berkeley and the second is Deeper Learning sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation Deeper Learning Community of Practice and Raikes Foundation with support from MIT. Sign up here to apart of these MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course). I'm signed up and so should you!

To be honest, I was a bit skeptical about the hype, but the schools, staff, and students far exceeded what I thought I would find. In my days there, I found HTH to be a great place of learning, and I struggled to take notes fast enough to keep up with my own learning. One element that came up often were the works of Expeditionary Learning schools (i.e. Maine's King Middle School and Odyssey School in Denver) and particularly the work of Ron Berger. It was clear that Ron has had a big influence on the staff and shape of the school. Its true that Expeditionary Learning has come up in many of my visits.

Character Development: I had the most direct interaction in regards to building perseverance and other non-cognitive skills during my time at High Tech Middle Media Arts. In conversation with their teachers and their director Steven Elizondo, I was able to get sense of their vision for character education. Steve and I had a nice conversation about growth mindset and the work of Carol Dweck. Steve was utilizing some of the work from, during their advisory time. Their middle school advisory (just as the high schools) meets with mixed grades 6-8 and 9-12 respectively. HTMMA meets with their advisory in the mornings on Tuesdays and Thursdays for about 1/2 hour. I joined Steven as he shared breakfast (students rotate bringing a little something in for the group) with his 16 or so students on Thursday morning. The group reviewed their own self-assessment scores of a mindsetworks handout and then brainstormed things that students could say to one another to encourage growth mindset, things that teachers could say, and things that they could say to themselves to encourage growth mindset. Simple and relaxed, but I thought it was a powerful advisory session. The advisory work with growth mindset falls within a larger framework for social and emotional growth at HTMMA. You can read more here: Social and Emotional Learning at HTMMA.

Social Integration: One aspect that I was impressed with is the fact that it is public school. San Diego school district is one of the biggest in the country, and each family around the district has an opportunity to attend a school in the HTH system. Not surprisingly, the demand exceeds the supply. Estimates indicate that for every 1 student that is chosen through the zip code lottery system, another 4 names are miss out. Its a pure chance, based on zip code, but all zip codes in San Diego are represented. About 40% of the network's students qualify for free or reduced lunch. In speaking with a number of founding teachers (many of them now working as administrators) they indicated that social integration remains a central goal of the school. I was impressed that I could not distinguish groups of friends based on race or social class. When I shared this observation with leaders at the school they quickly attributed that fact to project based learning.

Project Based Learning (PBL): PBL is the primary teaching method emphasized throughout the HTH system of schools. For a great resource about what PBL is and why its so useful in the modern learning environment visit HTH art-teacher-Jeff Robin's website. I've also included one of my favorite PBL explanation videos here:

I was familiar with the advantages of project based learning, but I had never heard of social integration as one of them. Folks like John Santos and Laura McBain (both founding teachers and both currently working as administrators) explained that by constantly grouping different students together to work on authentic learning projects, superficial barriers between students came down and typical teenage social stratification was reduced. Amazing!

Display of Teacher Project Plans at HTMMA
High Tech schools had some impressive projects going on while I was there. I'm certain that I only scratched the surface, but one of my favorites was a middle school class working on developing a nutrition bar. In Azul Terronez's 8th grade humanities class, students were in the beginning stages of learning about nutrition (watching clips from Hungry for Change) to design a healthy and environmentally responsible bar. They were tasked with the challenge of making it something that a middle schooler might actually want to buy and eat! Students are to develop the bars in teams and then pitch their bar not only to their classmates but real professionals in the business. Once the winning bar is selected they class will form into a company. Some students will be accounting, others with be marketing, and so on. The bar will go into actual production...and to top things off...proceeds will go to a charity to educate Thai farmers about the value of organic farming! WOW! Other projects I came across were an Angry Birds Catapult 8th grade science project from the students of Lawrence Ortiguerra, a documentary about stopping gun violence, Beyond the Crossfire (on kickstarter and has already raised over $30,000) by the students of Matthew Simon and many many more!

Beautiful Work: I was struck by the beauty of the hallways and the excellent student work displayed in the hallways. When I started complimenting the adults for the beautiful hallways it became evident to me that it was no accident. As Laura McBain explained, a school's culture is on its walls. She said, "I want the hallways to be museums of student work and student thinking." And that's just what the hallways looked like. Teachers get professional development for exhibiting and displaying.student work. It was clear that many of the teachers and students took displaying high quality beautiful work very seriously. And what a joy to be around all that color and expression/exploration of identity and thinking. Here are a few of my favorites: 

Judomath: One of the challenges with truly inclusive classrooms and truly student-driven-work is staying on top of individual students' math levels. High Tech Middle Math & Science Teacher, Mr. Dan Thoene has found a unique way that is popular with the students and staff alike. His method is called Judo Math. I had middle school tour guides excited to tell me that they were on blue belt, while some kids in the class were on orange belt and others were already at black belt! Basically it levels students and helps create student motivation and goal setting in order to master one level and move onto the next "belt". Its a fairly new system, but it already claims 50 active teachers using the system and I suspect will grow quickly!

Intercession: Many of the High Tech schools participate in something they call intercession. The time of year varies, but the high schools and some of the middle schools take a break from routine schedules and classes to study special offerings. Basically, each teacher (and other participating school staff members) offer a course of their choosing based on a passion of theirs. For example, Director of High Tech Middle Media Arts, Steven Elizondo loves to surf, so he is offering a week long session on surfing. Yes, students will surf, but they also will study meteorology, oceanography, and the physics and construction of a surf board. Students choose from the offerings and hopefully are able to get their 1st or 2nd choice. Closer to home, Burlington high school offered a similar time in what they called their YES session. It was reported to be very successful and popular and is back for a 2014 run. Read more about Burlington's program here: Burlington's Intercession, YES.

Closing Thoughts: In my time there, I was awash with educational gems. For example in a short conversation with their graduate school directors Kelly Wilson and Stacey Caillier, I left with a handy little phrase for the risk administrators face which Kelly called, "reactionary compliance". And their coffee mugs touted the phrase, "cultivating creative noncompliance." Educational wisdom and care for students was palpable. I am very grateful to have had the chance to visit. Special thanks to Zoe Randall who set my agenda and did the lion's share of hosting, Steven Elizondo, Lawrence Ortiguerra, John Santos, Chris Wakefield, Azul Terronez, Will Hasse, Randy Scherer, Laura McBain and many others for a friendly and useful visit!


  1. Okay, so they are doing it right. Great insights and observations on a macro level. I can't help but notice how many names and initiatives are listed throughout the post. I think it would be interesting to "follow the money" and see who appropriated it and where it came from. For example, how much of the money for these developments in curriculum. The "Kickstarter" idea may be a new way to procure excellence.

  2. Excellent! It's exciting to hear how innovative these young adults are. It will be very interesting to see how these skills translate for them in the real world. I assume they are tracking that? Any info on that?

  3. Shannon,

    Thanks for the comments. The amazing thing about HTH graduates is that 99% of them go to more schooling and 87% of them graduate. Those are extremely high numbers. In speaking with teachers about graduates of theirs, they expressed that their students do struggle some with the adjustment to traditional lectures and increased focus on content, but that they mostly make the adjustment.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful for me. Faculty Development Program || Institution Building || Educational Leadership