“High Tech High is not a model; it is an experiment.”

Those were the words of Rob Riordan at his closing keynote of the Deeper Learning Conference. I didn’t attend the conference but happened to be touring the conference site, High Tech Elementary, when Riordan was speaking.

I’m glad I stopped for Riordan’s keynote. He addressed a tension I had felt since my first tour of the High Tech campus two weeks prior. The public, tuition-free charter schools were exciting and exceptional — so exciting that many are eager to scale their model, but so exceptional  that defining that model has proved difficult.

It’s easier to understand after you tour.

When I first walked into High Tech High International on my first tour, the culture was palpable. The students were self-aware and passionate; the teachers were brilliant and inspiring. Creative projects lined the walls and hung from the ceilings. Most of the High Tech buildings are old naval training facilities, lending a re-invented industrial flair with high ceilings, collapsable walls, oddly-shaped rooms, etc.

Everything looked new or well-maintained, perhaps in part due to the grants and community donations that the school receives. In fact, the High Tech High Foundation received over $1.5 million in grants in 2014-2015 to support their schools.

A student's latest hot air balloon prototype.

Lab notebook showing a student’s latest hot air balloon prototype.

The founders of High Tech High, Rob Riordan and Larry Rosenstock, advocate project-based, student-directed learning. From my walkthrough, I can say with confidence that High Tech instruction stays true to that vision. The kids all seem engaged in meaningful, rewarding projects of their own design (or that they customized from a menu of teacher-selected options). The students look like they’re learning AND having fun.

So who are these kids? One might suspect that affluent, educated parents would push hard to have their children attend such a school.

The five thousand students at High Tech High schools are selected from all over San Diego County through a lottery. About 40% of students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch; 12% have special needs. According to the Los Angeles Times’s School Tracker, the original High Tech High School has a student population that is 33% White, 41% Latino, 11% Black, 14% Asian and 1% other.

High Tech High School, like most High Tech schools, is diverse. Even better, this seems to enhance, not detract, from the school’s great culture and learning atmosphere. It’s a point of pride among teachers, staff and students. But are their students successful in by conventional metrics? What about college admittance and standardized tests?

Over 98% of HTH students enter four-year colleges, compared to a national average of 33%. To date, 86% are still enrolled in or have graduated from college. The original High Tech High ranks in the 94th percentile in the state of California. While the Los Angeles Times’ School Tracker points to below-average performance in some areas such as math, students seem to perform well overall. This is with a curriculum that at times appears overtly deviant from state standards.

When I left, I was impressed. I had already seen two documentaries about High Tech High (Most Likely to Succeed and Beyond Measure), but the tour solidified my opinion that High Tech High is doing something great — something that I don’t see in most public schools. I wasn’t alone in this sentiment. The public school superintendent who toured alongside me was also impressed with High Tech High’s practices and learning environment.

I left High Tech High inspired but also struggling to understand how one would replicate their success. My company, Education Elements, spends a lot of time thinking about how public school districts can design, implement and scale innovative teaching practices.  From teachers to facilities to charter-specific accountabilities, there were too many exceptions at High Tech High. For a public school to follow in High Tech High’s footsteps, they would have to change a lot of variables at once.

High Tech High International

The entrance of High Tech High International

In the following weeks, I tried to define the High Tech model. Was it personalized learning with project-based learning? Blended learning with flexible workspace and an emphasis on the arts? Deeper learning combined with high-paid teachers? In two documentary screenings and two tours, I didn’t observe an overarching methodology or instructional practice that would imply a secret recipe for success. A few guiding principles around project-based learning, but that’s it.

Riordan’s words made it all click. “High Tech High is not a model; it is an experiment.”

As an experiment, High Tech provides an amazing snapshot of what school can and should be: a place where students are excited to learn. High Tech doesn’t reveal the path that traditional public schools should take to arrive at similar results. It touts no seven step program for success. Rather, it shows us what success should feel like.

It’s hard to determine which variables have the greatest weight in High Tech’s success, but that’s beside the point. They are successful. The High Tech schools have no model that schools should blindly adopt. Instead, they are is an impressive experiment that pushes us to think about how we can make school better.

Photo Credit:
High Tech High International (cropped) by Ewan McIntosh
The other photos, including the adorable rainbow drawing, were taken by me.