Innovating the Innovative

New Tech High is a very special place. It has always been seen as an innovative place, somewhat of a unicorn. Only a few fully public high schools have been able to not only sustain, but thrive outside the norm of traditional education after 20+ years of launching. Many times, I have heard, “well that is great, but we can’t do that” or “we’ve always done it that way and our test scores are good”. New Tech High has stayed true to its core of having a student-led culture, implementing wall-to-wall project-based learning, performance skill-based assessment and embedded college, career, and service opportunities despite the ebbs and flows of public funding and resource allotment. Enrollment is at its highest level ever.

New Tech High has shown you can live outside the walls of “traditional” education and albeit, students can still go to amazing universities and get amazing jobs, often more ready. As well, it has seen nearly 200 schools follow in it’s footsteps via the new Tech Network and hosted nearly 50,000 visitors since opening its doors in 1996.

However, complacency is the enemy of excellence.

Over the last two years as a school, we have explored what the next iteration of our model looks like. We are excited to continue to push the boundaries of how the lines between “school” and the “real world” are blurred. This year, our 9th graders experience has been transformed to continue to push us into the future and we know many of these elements by themselves are not revolutionary, but as a school that has been leading the school reform movement, it is possible to innovate the innovative.

PROJECTS AS THE DRIVER

Subject matter plays an important role in our learning, however, without meaningful application it is all for nothing. Integrated courses have always been at the bedrock of our design, but silos of learning still existed.  Freshman have had to generally navigate FIVE completely separate projects at any given time. Our goal moving forward is to ask the question, “What does it look like to solve problems that matter?”. In doing so, we have worked to streamline both student learning and teacher collaboration around ONE  driving projects at a time. This means that Art, Computer Science & Design, Science, Math, English, PE & Health, and Spanish subject matter will be learned together via an integrated project-experience in a real world context. Our goal is to streamline the workload, but also challenge ourselves and students to engage in projects that change their lives, the lives of others, our local community, and the greater world.

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SCHOOL WITHOUT WALLS

In a traditional school, the algorithm of the master schedule dictates when you learn what (and in some cases for us too). Our goal is to breakdown the barrier of time and space. Students will still be at a specific place at a specific time and attendance tracked, but having math at 8:00 am on M, W, F because the schedule says so is a thing of the past. Our goal is to let the learning and project needs drive the course of what happens when. For example, on Monday, you might be with the Math teacher at 8:30 am for a workshop. But then on Tuesday, you are with the Math teacher and Science teacher at 1:30 pm for a data analysis lab. The relevance of the work and needs of the student drive the schedule.

ASSESSMENT PRACTICES

Assessment in education can always be a tricky topic. For many, it is the gatekeeper to what opportunities they will be afforded after high school. In a goal to make assessment more transparent and feedback more persistent, assessment will look different for your students. At New Tech High, our FIVE schoolwide learning outcomes are the vehicle in which academic knowledge is unlocked. In each subject matter, students will be assessed on their ability to apply the content standards via agency, collaboration, oral communication, written communication, and knowledge & thinking. Students’ mastery in both content standards and skills will be tracked and visible for each separate subject area. Our goal is to promote an assessment culture that is built upon BOTH mastery and growth versus one that is built on compliance, grade hunting, and punishment.

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DEVELOPING SKILLS

As stated above, at New Tech High, developing skills, processes, and habits of mind are equally as important as developing content knowledge. Throughout your students project experiences, they will engage in scaffolds that challenge them to push their skill development outside their comfort zone, use industry standard processes such as agile management, design thinking, and scrum meetings, and build habits of mind such as empathy, thinking flexibly, and striving for accuracy. All of these things transcend one content area or one moment in time and for many New Tech High alumni, it is what sets them apart from the rest.

SOCIO-EMOTIONAL SUPPORTS

Supporting the whole child is one of the many reasons New Tech High is appealing to families. Most of the time, when a student needs socio-emotional supports, it is in lieu of something else. They get pulled from class, have to miss something important, etc. As we cannot guarantee that that won’t ever happen, our goal is to continue to innovate at how we provide holistic supports for all students that are embedded in the project experience. Through wellness practices, non-violent communication training, mentorships, and more, students have access to opportunities to strengthen their mind and spirit as part of their core experience, not in addition too.

We are excited about what the future holds for the 9th grade class and the course they will help set for the future of our project-based culture at New Tech High.  As project-based learning gets more popular across the country, there is also the danger that what we allow to be called PBL is water downed.  At New Tech High, we know not every project we have done or do is perfect, but we refuse to let OUR project-based learning become another buzzword for someone else.  We know that the road we are paving for all students is something we can be proud of and will help us take project-based learning into a new world. Our goal is to truly challenge ourselves to co-create opportunities with our students and families to solve problems that matter beyond the four walls of the classroom.  We have been doing it, but must refuse to be complacent that good is good enough.

Riley

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