Napa Valley’s Newest Export
Project-based instruction and an open school culture have made New Technology High School a celebrated model for replication
Technology isn't the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of California's Napa Valley. Napa's traditional industries—wine making and tourism—are thought of as high-touch, not high-tech. But a successful high-school experiment shows that Napa's future holds more than just a fine Merlot. And the school is fast becoming a model for more than a dozen spin-offs throughout California.
Here's how it began: In the early 1990s, a group of business leaders and educators realized that local schools weren't graduating students with the kinds of skills that would attract 21st-century firms to the area. Napa's future as a vibrant and diverse community clearly required a local workforce conversant with gigabytes as well as grapes, and that meant rethinking the concept of high school—the same way that start-ups were rethinking traditional business models.
After four years of careful planning, Napa's New Technology High School opened in 1996 to national fanfare. Its catchy name notwithstanding, this public school's focus on students—more than on any particular technology fad—has been the secret to its success and endurance. Indeed, after seven years of operation, New Tech High has managed to transcend the rise and fall of the dot-com bubble. With a $4.9 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the school is now engaged in a replication effort that is sprouting new schools in the New Tech mold across Northern California.
AN OASIS OF LEARNING
Walk through the doors of New Tech High's low-key building and you'll find a welcoming environment. With no bells to signal transitions between class periods, the hallways are peaceful and unhurried. The school's 220 students—only 11th and 12th graders—can be seen working quietly or walking to class. Windowed walls between classrooms and hallways help create an atmosphere of inclusion and openness, and lockers are nowhere to be seen: Students feel comfortable leaving book bags unattended.
Although desktop computers are ubiquitous here, they have been thoughtfully integrated into the design of each classroom so as not to obstruct face-to-face interactions. Overt displays of technology fetishism—such as students using laptops obsessively or fussing over handheld computers—are conspicuously absent. Clearly, what is happening in this school goes much deeper than computer tokenism.
"It doesn't take a lot of investigation to see that this school isn't about technology—it's about teaching and learning," says the school's principal, Mark Morrison. And as the school's educators are eager to point out, the purpose of New Tech High is not to train an army of computer geeks: Less than 20 percent of its students plan a career in IT. Instead, the school's instructional philosophy combines rigorous academic content with the life and career skills that students need to succeed in today's modern workplace: collaboration, presentation, time management, and problem solving.
"It's more like a business environment," says Kimberly Reyes, a senior at the school. "The differences here are in the way the classes are taught, the curriculum, collaboration, and the teacher-student relations. You're closer to the teacher here." Nor is New Tech High an exclusive playground for high achievers. The school actively recruits average students whose needs aren't being met elsewhere. Indeed, a common thread among students who attend New Tech High is that traditional schools were simply not a good fit for them. Half of the student body drives to school from cities outside Napa, and the school's open campus gives students the flexibility to leave school during lunch hour.
New Tech's project-based learning methodology places students in the center of a project or problem that requires them to learn course materials in order to reach their objective. The key to using this method successfully is to introduce the project at the beginning of a course rather than at the end so students can independently realize why they need to know the material.
For example, instead of being lectured on fiscal and monetary policy, students might be asked to develop a national plan for responding to an oil embargo. Projects are long-term, require planning and teamwork, and are supported by instructional units that help students gain the knowledge they need to tackle the problem at hand.
In one classroom, American studies teachers David Ross and Brooke Armstrong are putting this concept to work, weaving history and literature together in a seamless strand of instruction. Like nearly every class at New Tech High, this course is taught in the team-teaching style.
Another key ingredient: collaborative work and peer-based evaluations. For example, one student is called on at random to sit in the "hot seat," which means being asked questions about the reading material by the other students. That sense of peers keeping each other honest is reinforced by group work in which team members can actually vote to "fire" a team member who is not holding up his or her end—though teachers must approve the vote.
In another classroom, math teacher Megan Pacheco and physics teacher Kevin Gant team-teach the scientific studies class. The two-hour block of class time allows the teachers to alternate between lectures and helping individual students with their projects.
THE NEW TECH WAY
New Tech High's instructional leaders readily admit that project-based learning can be a time-consuming teaching method. As teacher Brooke Armstrong puts it, "This place challenges people—it is more work. This is not an 8-to-3 kind of school."
Indeed, a frequent criticism of project-based learning is that it takes so much time, skill, and talent to do well that many teachers cut corners and do it poorly. Recognizing this problem, the school created an online database of well-conceived projects so teachers don't have to reinvent the wheel. The database is one part of the school's trademarked "New Tech High Learning System"—a suite of customized software tools and instructional technologies developed with Lotus Notes by the school's curriculum director, Paul Curtis.
New Tech High also has its own approach to technology-enabled assessment. Teachers enter multiple grades for each assignment—covering specifics such as spelling, grammar, content, and critical thinking. This granular approach to assessment also helps parents, who are able to access these detailed progress reports online.
When educators at New Tech High say they intend to lead high-school reform, they mean it. In 2000, the school created the New Technology Foundation, which disseminates the New Tech model-including methodology, tools, and resources. This effort, funded by the Gates Foundation, has resulted in the launch of five new schools in Northern California. The plan is to build 10 such schools statewide. Says principal Mark Morrison: "We've done a good job documenting what we've done, and we can replicate it if a community has fertile soil."
Lars Kongshem is the senior editor of Scholastic Administrator.