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Is This The Future Of Education In America?

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Visitors from around the world have toured California's New Technology High School, hoping to glimpse the future of American education.

It's hard to tell which part of Mark Morrison's job takes more of his time: his duties as director of New Technology High School in Napa, California, or his role as the school's resident tour guide. Over the past year, he has entertained more than 2,500 visitors—educators, reporters, policymakers, and business executives—from around the world. They come to catch a glimpse of the future of American education, a school where the computer is king, where books, chalkboards, paper, and pencils are all but things of the past.

This morning, Morrison stands in the school's linen-white foyer, bundles of computer cable overhead, chatting in the caffeinated rhythms of a tour guide trying to convince visitors that what they're about to see is indeed amazing. He speaks seamlessly of cultural shifts ("Who's the expert in a world where the kids know more than the teacher?"), surfing ("We're trying to stay on top of the technological wave"), and the virtues of running a school like an entrepreneurial business. New Technology High is, according to a brochure Morrison hands out, "the school that business built." As if to emphasize this point, the principal points to a plaque on the lobby wall listing more than 40 corporate donors—Digital Planet, Creative Multimedia, Silicon Graphics, among them. "We appreciate their support," he says.

New Technology High School, Morrison explains, was modeled after a high-tech business start-up. "That meant starting small, budgeting for a loss the first two years, and maximizing resources," he says. "And it meant educating kids for what business wants: basic technology skills, a willingness to work in teams, and the ability to apply knowledge to real-world projects."

Morrison, a former professional baseball player who looks as if he could still belt line drives, leads me down the school's central corridor, which features not lockers and trophy cases but large glass windows behind which are classrooms filled with computers—computers everywhere. Students in Nike T-shirts, baggy pants, and other trendy garb work intently at the machines. The heads of a few are wedged between headphones; they look as if they're scanning sonar screens for enemy subs.

Morrison stops in front of an integrated American history and English classroom. Nothing about the room says history or English. It looks like most of the other classrooms we've passed—all windows and white walls. There are no books in sight, no blackboard—only kids at desks scrolling through computer screens. The class is studying the U.S. Constitution. I peer over one girl's shoulder. Her screen reads, "John Locke believed that people learn through experience." She hits a button, and another screenful of information appears: "Montesquieu believed . . . ."

Across the hall is a computer-applications classroom; it looks just like the English/history room, only more stark. The students are either so engaged or so accustomed to visitors—Tipper Gore came through not long ago with a sizable entourage—that they don't even notice our faces pressed to the glass. Even when we walk into the classroom and stand looking over their shoulders, the students hardly glance up.

"All the juniors here become proficient in Microsoft Word, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint," Morrison says. "When they graduate, they're ready to go to work—if, that is, they decide not to go on to college."

The tour continues. More germ-free rooms with kids at computers. The few students in the corridors—those heading for a printing station or taking a bathroom break—say hello to Morrison and quickly move on. No one at New Technology High ever seems to linger. "We treat the students like employees," Morrison explains. "We see them as responsible people who will get their work done, and so they don't have to ask permission to get up and stretch or get a drink of water."

This is not hyperbole: Students are indeed treated like employees. In the computer-applications class, students get six vacation days a year in addition to the regular school holidays; they simply request a day off, no questions asked. In other classes, students can actually "fire" laggard classmates in their work groups. "I've heard some complaints about group members who are not carrying their weight," an English teacher tells her juniors. "What do you do? Well, what happens in business? They get fired. And you can fire someone here, too, if they're not contributing. First, though, you have to consult with us teachers—the supervisors. And if they do end up getting fired, they'll have to work alone."

As the teacher speaks, she holds up a card that students who have been fired will receive; it's the equivalent of the dreaded pink slip.

The final stop on my tour is yet another glass-encased classroom. The lights inside are dim, giving the room a greenish, submarine hue. Colorful images somersault this way and that across the computer screens. "The multimedia-design class," Morrison announces. "People from a design firm came by to see what these kids were doing and said they'd pay them $35,000 right now to come work for them."

Technology may be the main attraction, but what truly distinguishes the school is the innovative way the faculty treat and teach the students.

Morrison departs, leaving me to watch the students in action. Their work is amazing. These seniors have already mastered basic HTML, the hypertext markup language used to create Web pages for the Internet, and they are now learning to edit graphic images they've created with a program called Extreme 3D. They choose from various painting options, such as "Japanese" and "airbrush," and texture options, such as "grass." Some move about the room, offering suggestions to others.

I introduce myself to the teacher, Cassandra Van Buren, who peremptorily states, "This is not a vocational class." She pauses a moment and then adds, "I know I sound defensive, but a lot

of visitors who come in here think I'm just preparing kids for good jobs. But I see it as my responsibility to teach them theory and critical skills. I want them to understand the history of electronic media because those patterns are repeating in the computer culture—namely, that what began as a people's hobby is being taken over by big corporations. Human nature invariably asserts itself in the form of advertising and commercialism."

Van Buren came to New Technology High School from the University of Oregon, where she worked with computers. She made the move, she says, because she wanted to do something "interactive"—that is, she wanted to work with human beings as well as machines. "I need to prepare these kids for their private lives as well as for their public lives," she says, looking somewhat somber in the room's murky light.

Indeed, Van Buren and other New Tech teachers say that most visitors overlook key human dimensions of the school. Educational technology may be the main attraction, but what truly distinguishes the school, they point out, is the innovative way the faculty treat and teach students. This, they contend, is far more important than all their newfangled gadgetry.

N ew Technology High may be a public school, but it's a new kind of public school, one created less by educators than by business for business. It's a high-tech enterprise dedicated to producing what Morrison calls "industry-ready kids."

The school's mission statement puts it this way: "New Technology High School prepares students to succeed and compete in an advanced technology-based society. The students are empowered to be confident about themselves, their career paths, and the future."

Both the state of California and the federal government see the school as a model that can be replicated in districts around the nation. Governor Pete Wilson's Digital High School Initiative has dubbed it California's first "Cool School." And the U.S. Department of Education, which kicked in $300,000 to the school's launch, named it a department "demonstration site."

New Technology High was born out of economic necessity. In the early 1990s, business leaders in Napa Valley, an area known for vineyards and wineries, decided that the time was ripe to expand an economy long dominated by the production of merlot and chardonnay. Silicon Valley, a two-hour drive to the south, was booming; why not try to persuade some high-tech companies to open shop in Napa?

The problem, the business leaders quickly learned, was a shortage of skilled labor. High-tech industries wouldn't come to Napa without a supply of technologically sophisticated workers. So in 1993, the local business community and officials from the Napa Valley Unified School District began to talk about starting a small specialized school that would produce just this kind of employee. They approached companies—Silicon Graphics, Lotus Development Corp., Hewlett-Packard, and others—and asked a couple of straightforward questions: What kind of school would they like to see? What kind of graduate should emerge from it? A number of the companies, in turn, offered both counsel and financial assistance. And in September of 1996, the school opened with 120 juniors and six staff members. Another class and additional teachers were added this year. The school now enrolls some 190 juniors and seniors, with almost equal numbers of girls and boys.

The district recruited teachers from as far away as Ohio, Washington state, and Oregon; the goal was to hire the best and brightest people it could find who also had faith in the transformative power of education technology.

Morrison describes the students as risk takers. They left their traditional high schools for what seemed at the time an educational experiment. What's more, it was an experiment with no foreign-language offerings, football team, or music program. (Students desiring such extracurriculars have to commute between New Technology High and their old schools.)

Most New Tech students were bored at their previous schools. They wanted schooling that was hands-on, active, and participatory.

Most New Tech students were bored at their previous schools, Morrison says. They wanted schooling that was hands-on, active, participatory, and New Tech gives them this, with a curriculum that is largely project driven but still in line with the state's academic expectations. In one history class, students study the Monroe Doctrine by producing a newsletter on its impact, complete with articles, editorials, and political cartoons. In an integrated English and economics class, students working in teams develop new products and then prepare business plans to bring them to the market. They take part in schoolwide projects, too. The entire student body, for example, produced an "electronic quilt"—actually a CD-ROM—on the history, economy, religion, and government of Napa Valley. Click on one quilt square and you can explore the genealogies of individual Napa families.

Although the students turn out impressive work, Morrison emphasizes that the school has not siphoned off the district's whiz kids. In fact, many had less-than-stellar academic track records before coming to the school. Applicants generally have at least a 2.0 grade-point average and an algebra course under their belts, but a number are admitted with less than that. Some arrive not even knowing how to turn on a computer.

Overall, it's a diverse group: 38 percent are nonwhite, and 30 percent qualify for the federal free-lunch poverty program. As Morrison tells it, many are "average kids who were pretty much invisible at their previous schools, wandering through the school system with no real goals. But here they succeed."

The teachers concur. "The students here don't float through the system like jellyfish," says American government and economics teacher Paul Curtis, who came to the school from Napa High, a comprehensive high school of 2,000 students. "They're incredibly purposeful."

For this, Curtis gives less credit to the school's vaunted technology than its pedagogy. "No, it's not the technology," he says. "I don't even see the technology as the mainstay of the curriculum. Now, it's true that there is a huge market for kids with these kinds of technological skills. Still, technology is not what this school is all about."

Curtis praises the project-based curriculum and the fact that faculty members team up to teach a number of integrated courses. He and English teacher Jetti Matzke team teach a class called "Political Studies." An amalgam of sociology, literature, and economics, the course explores issues of power, authority, and human rights.

But what really motivates the students, Curtis believes, is the fact that the school is run like a business. Accountability is the watchword. The students are both clients and employees—clients in that they are the ones served by the school, employees in that they have an obligation to work hard and meet established goals.

"The business model is accountability," Curtis emphasizes as he watches students stuff an in-basket with essays. "Here we set students to work on a project with deadlines, and they meet the deadlines—no questions asked. And the work is consistently good. It's all a question of meeting standards. Industry has standards, and so do we. At most other schools, there are no real standards, and so kids will always go for the easy grade; if you try to push kids in an environment where there are no standards, they will complain about how tough you're being. But if there are standards—uncompromising ones upheld by everyone—the kids really will see you as a coach trying to help them meet them."


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