Hands-On High

By Theresa Johnston — February 01, 2002 22 min read
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CART’s principal mission is to inspire and educate students—especially those with mediocre grades.

Most urban Californians tend to think of the San Joaquin Valley as the flat piece of land that stretches between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It’s a 22,000-square-mile patchwork of dusty towns, truck stops, and irrigated fields stitched together by highways, railroads, and power lines. An 18-wheeler loaded with tomatoes can stay locked in a driver’s rearview mirror for what seems like hours. At the hub of the valley lies Fresno County, population 800,000. Home to hundreds of food-processing factories and distribution warehouses, the area can be broiling in summer and damp with fog in winter. But, if you ask Youa Her, it might just as well be the Promised Land.

Youa, a dark-eyed 17-year-old, still recalls fleeing persecution and fighting in her native Laos, a neighbor of Vietnam, more than a decade ago. Youa and her family seized their chance to escape the Communist country, slipping across the border to Thailand and literally running for their lives. “I remember this Thai guy was like an officer or something, and he carried me on his back running through the bushes,” says Youa, who was just 4 at the time. “Once he dropped me hard on the ground, and I remember I cried, and everybody was scared and trying to hush me up. They whispered: ‘Don’t cry! Don’t cry! Someone will hear us!’ ”

After living in Thailand for several years, the Hers eventually made their way to the San Joaquin Valley, where thousands of other Hmong refugees had come looking for jobs in fields and factories. Even early on, though, there were signs that life in the hoped-for Eden wasn’t going to be easy. Fresno County’s jobless rates were lodged stubbornly in the teens, and Southeast Asian and Mexican workers were hit hard as farm jobs fell prey to creeping land development and mechanization.

Susan Fisher, dean of curriculum, helped create “wet” labs stocked with modern equipment and “dry” labs full of plush office furniture.
—Steve Goldstein

Back in the early 1990s, school and business leaders could see the dust clouds forming on many children’s horizons. “We knew [the area] needed to diversify economically, and at the same time, we wanted to do something about all these economically deprived kids with low skills and no aspirations,” explains Susan Fisher, then a school career counselor in the Fresno suburb of Clovis. “There were all these pockets of people around town saying, ‘My God, what can be done about this?’ ”

The Clovis Unified School District could have simply increased the number of its vocational courses. But deputy superintendent Jim Fugman, Fisher, and community leaders opted for a more radical approach: After years of planning, in August 2000, they opened the Center for Advanced Research and Technology, a career-oriented charter school for high school juniors and seniors. CART’s principal mission is to inspire and educate students—especially those with mediocre grades—through internships and hands-on projects in a comfortable, high-tech environment. But the school’s board of directors also hopes its efforts will yield a creative, polished, tech-savvy workforce that will help lure corporations to the region.

CART has a student population of 1,200, which makes it larger than most charter schools. It’s also well-funded, with millions of dollars pouring in from dozens of corporate donors, including Microsoft, Pacific Bell, and IBM. What really sets the school apart, however, is its unapologetic focus on the world of work. The principal goes by the title “chief operating officer,” local business leaders serve on CART’s board, and its 34 teachers act more as mentors than lecturers. And students are treated like trusted employees: There are no hall passes or asking to go to the bathroom at CART.

Teenagers who opt to attend the school must do so with an open mind. Instead of taking English or chemistry classes, for example, they’re asked to sign up for career-themed courses, or “learning labs,” that incorporate such subjects. Each year, a student selects one lab from a list of 12 options usually reserved for colleges and universities, including telecommunications, forensic research, biomedicine, and environmental science. Labs run three hours a day, and the mandatory internships require a six-hour-a-week commitment. In addition, kids are expected to spend as much time as they need in a traditional, or “home,” school to fulfill any required courses, such as phys ed and foreign languages, that CART does not offer.

A number of educators, both locally and nationally, are enthusiastic about CART. The National Association of Secondary School Principals has endorsed the effort, recognizing it as an exemplary model for achieving high school reform. And while several other schools in the nation focus on careers, the unique approach of integrating subjects, assigning real-world projects, and providing high-tech resources has drawn visitors from more than 60 U.S. districts and eight countries.

The school does have its share of critics, though. Approximately 40 percent of those students who were juniors during the 2000-01 school year, for example, chose not to return this past fall, citing, among other reasons, too little structure. And some experts aren’t sold on the school’s business orientation, which, they argue, comes at the expense of a traditional liberal arts education. Some even go so far as to say that CART is little more than a high-tech version of a traditional vocational school.

Still, for students like Youa Her who sometimes haven’t performed well in conventional classrooms, CART is a significant boon. A senior studying biomedicine, Youa, like many other immigrant kids, moved frequently over the years as her family sought decent places to live and work. Now she’s landed in an academic setting that suits her, and she’s grateful. “Coming to America was a big change for me,” she says. “When I started school in America, the only three [things] I knew in English were ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ and ‘Please can I go to the bathroom?’ I used to cry all the time doing my homework because no one was there to help me. But now . . . ” She pauses as tears well up in her eyes. “Now, I’m better with my learning skills and everything; my grades are up big time. I appreciate this place so much.”

Visiting CART’s $37 million facility in suburban Clovis, it’s easy to see why so many people are impressed. Outside, the corrugated steel walls are painted bright yellow and gray, and except for the standard school-crossing sign, there’s hardly anything commonplace about the 75,000-square-foot building. Inside, the climate-controlled main hall resembles a hushed first-class airport lounge. High above the lobby hang 12-foot-long banners splashed with the faces of modern-day success stories: John Glenn, Colin Powell, George Lucas, and Bill Gates among them. Aside from the person’s name, each banner bears a reminder: “Being extraordinary is a state of mind.”

CART has a student population of 1,200, which makes it larger than most charter schools. It’s also well-funded, with millions of dollars from dozens of corporate donors.

Surrounding the lobby are the school’s 12 learning labs, which are quite large; CART classes average a whopping 75 kids, who are taught by teams of three teachers. Some of the labs are “wet,” as CART folks like to say, equipped with sinks, burners, and other science paraphernalia. The “dry” labs boast computer workstations worthy of any Silicon Valley corporation, as well as ergonomic chairs and other modern office furniture. At the heart of the building is a room humming with 25 computer network servers. Above it, a striking neon sign cautions: “Your future is at stake. Failure is not an option.”

Although CART’s resources are high-end, its creators are quick to note that the school is not designed for top achievers. In fact, because CART administrators hope to reach kids who are merely getting by in conventional schools, applicants need show little more than good attendance records, the completion of some basic courses, and interest in the program. “Some kids just don’t learn well in a traditional college-prep environment,” notes Fugman, the deputy superintendent. “We wanted to reach that middle [segment] of kids, the ones who were just wandering through the system.”

Fugman first contemplated creating a school like CART a decade ago after then- superintendent David Sawyer suggested the idea. Jerry Cook, a local businessman, gave the effort a major boost when he agreed to sell his old water-pump manufacturing site at a steep discount. Even at that point, the estimated cost of the project was hefty, so the Clovis district joined forces with Fresno, its poorer but larger neighbor to the west. With plans to send kids to the school in equal numbers, the districts agreed to chip in $11 million each. The rest of the funds would come from corporate donors and zero-interest bonds.

Once the CART site was secured, education and business leaders sat down to outline a curriculum. After several meetings with the Fresno Business Council, which represents the region’s 100 largest employers—agriculture-related enterprises, manufacturers, banks, and shipping companies included—the school’s board of directors came up with a lab for each field they wanted to promote. The job of designing the courses was left to CART’s first crop of teachers, mostly local folks who were hired in part for the work they did before becoming educators. They were given a year, and Fugman is thrilled with the results. “This school may change the look of high school education,” he claims.

It’s certainly changed school for Youa Her. Two years ago, when she was a sophomore at Edison High School, she had boyfriend troubles that were affecting her grades and her outlook. Since enrolling at CART, at the suggestion of her career counselor, she’s been focusing on medical studies.

CART student Youa Her tracks delays in a hospital operating room.
—Steve Goldstein

Youa’s been interested in medicine for several years, partly because her father’s poor health has prevented him from working. Now she’s determined to become a doctor. So, three mornings a week, she rises at 5:40 and dresses in the four-bedroom house she shares with 10 family members. Plucking her shoes from a neat row on the front porch, Youa catches a ride with her father through a neighborhood marked by peeling paint and boarded-up windows. Once at Edison High, her home school in downtown Fresno, she catches a school bus for the trip to Clovis.

Youa arrives at CART at 7:30 a.m. for a biomedicine lab. Lately, she’s been studying the human eye. Asked about it, she launches into an enthusiastic—and detailed—description of the cornea, the retina, and more. Youa is excited about many things these days. She loves playing soccer and pickup basketball at the local playground after school, and for a while, she aspired to be the first Hmong woman boxer. But her favorite moments take place Mondays and Fridays. That’s when she hikes several blocks from her home to Fresno Community Medical Center, dons purple scrubs, and reports for her CART internship in the hospital’s surgery unit.

Some days, Youa simply fills out paperwork and talks with staff about their jobs. What she most enjoys is observing operations. She proudly lists the surgeries she’s witnessed, including one in which the veins in a man’s arm were repaired. As committed as Youa is to her studies, she faces some pressures at home. Her father and stepmother are thinking about moving again, and they’ve urged her to get a job at Burger King. But Youa refuses to give up her current routine, even if that means staying behind should her family relocate. Attending CART has convinced her that education is the key to her future. “I have such high goals now, not for the money, but for the respect,” she says firmly. “If I were still in Laos, I’d probably be married and have 10 kids by now. But here, if it’s possible for me as a woman to be a surgeon, I will become one. I tell people, ‘You doubt me, and I will prove you wrong.’ ”

On a bright October morning, Susan Fisher is standing at CART’s front door. The no-nonsense dean of curriculum, dressed in a crisp black pantsuit, asks those who are arriving late to school: “What time is it? What time do we start? If this were your job, would you still be working here?” She sighs. “It’s stupid that I have to do this. But now the students know I’m going to be here,” she says. “And if I keep at it, there will be fewer late ones each day.”

Fisher, a 25-year veteran teacher and career counselor who once worked in corporate communications, is also responsible for discipline at CART. Last year there were only four suspensions, three of them for smoking, according to Fisher. She notes that kids at CART, who often work in teams, get along well, even though they come from different parts of town. Some students live in Clovis’ leafy suburban neighborhoods, but others commute from parts of Fresno dotted with pawn shops, junkyards, and billboards that pitch teen-pregnancy prevention and Tecate beer.

Aside from the person’s name, each banner bears a reminder: “Being extraordinary is a state of mind.”

Susana Flores is one of the teens who take the half-hour bus ride from Fresno each day. Her parents, immigrants from Jalisco, Mexico, have decent jobs, her mom on an assembly line and her dad in a poultry-processing plant. But Susana wants to be an engineer, a career CART’s teachers inspired her to pursue. Though her class is large, its three co-teachers spend a lot of time mentoring, as opposed to lecturing, their charges, who usually engage in hands-on projects. That means Susana receives a good deal of guidance. “At my regular school, things weren’t really working out,” explains the soft- spoken 17-year-old. “Fresno High is really packed, and you don’t get a lot of individual help. But here the teachers are really great at listening and working with us.”

One of Flores’ teachers is George Burman, who’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt. At the moment, the students in his engineering and product-development lab are bent over blueprints of the school’s physical plant. The September 11 terrorist attacks took place less than a month ago, and CART’s administrators have asked the students to devise and install a video surveillance system to improve school security. As part of the six-month project, Susana and her partner, Blake Bowen, have decided to write to Pelco—the video-camera manufacturing plant where Susana’s mother works—asking for free equipment and technical advice. Burman suggests they tweak the draft’s wording just a bit to make it clearer. “You need to tell these people the message you want to deliver,” he says, as his pupils scribble in their notebooks. “Think about it. Why would Pelco want to help you? Well, one answer is that they can’t find qualified engineers to fill their jobs. So, in the long run, this relationship with CART will help them develop trained people.”

Susana appreciates the opportunity to connect with local business leaders. “I have contacts now, people in the engineering profession who know who I am and in the future might be willing to give me a job,” she says. In fact, many CART students say that the networking has led them to paying summer jobs.

Like most CART teachers, Linda Bacon-Miles, a law instructor, spends a good chunk of each week helping students hook up with mentors in the local community, where kids find some of their project ideas. She’s particularly proud of a report her students wrote recently for the city of Fresno, which was considering a daytime curfew for minors to combat truancy. After studying the constitutional issues and surveying cities with similar laws, her students concluded that the curfew wasn’t a good idea. They then went before the mayor and city council to explain why. Not only was the proposed legislation voted down, says Bacon-Miles, but several council members offered the kids part-time work.

‘We wanted to reach that middle [segment] of kids, the ones who were just wandering through the system.’

Jim Fugman,
Deputy superintendent,

But CART’s faculty members don’t focus only on building their students’ future careers. The hands-on, work-world approach, they argue, is a way to spark an interest in learning—a view some educational experts echo. For example, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology and education at California’s Claremont Graduate University and author of Becoming Adult, believes teenagers are biologically programmed for activity, not just sitting and absorbing abstract knowledge. CART, he says, goes far in removing some of the aspects of traditional schools that kids find boring. “For roughly 200,000 generations, children learned from adults—not specialized teachers—in real-life settings, and they didn’t do too badly at it,” he argues. “I don’t for a moment expect that schooling as we know it will be the education of choice in a generation or two.”

He’s not the only one who feels that way. The National Association of Secondary School Principals has announced that it’s in favor of a high school reform model that combines classroom studies with work-based learning. And the National Commission on the High School Senior Year issued a report in October 2000 recommending that every 12th grader pursue an internship or a substantial research project. As the commission’s chairman, Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton, put it: “Too many students leave high school unprepared for further study or work. They’re being left behind by an education system that protects and shields them from real-world expectations.”

At CART, real-world expectations are inescapable. Today, in the economics and marketing lab, Bruce Hoffman’s seniors are huddled around desktop computers, putting the finishing touches on business plans. One group hopes to design a computerized service that matches homeowners with architects, while another aims to market pogo sticks. The business plans are not just exercises: The student teams are competing for placement in the business “incubator” program at Fresno State University, where MBA students will help the budding entrepreneurs turn their ideas into reality.

In addition to supervising projects, Hoffman spends a lot of time helping any number of the 75 or so students in his class find their mandatory internships. Each day, he and his two teaching partners arrive at 6:30 a.m. to confer and get a handle on what’s ahead. “You’ve got three hours [a day] with these students,” he explains, “so if you’re not planned and organized, you’ve got chaos.”

Despite the hard work, the kids’ enthusiasm goes far in sustaining teachers. “At the beginning of the year here, it’s very interesting,” notes Hoffman, a Bronx native with a neatly trimmed beard. “You get a broad range of kids, and some of them are lazy. But once you put them in this environment, by the time the year is over, they don’t want to leave.”

He illustrates his point: “I had one student knock on my door at 6:30 this morning, asking if he could come in. ‘I’ve got a presentation due tomorrow,’ he said, ‘and I need to work.’ That’s the fun part of the whole process to me. These kids are working harder here than if they were back in their home schools, but they don’t realize it.”

Ron Chakov, a lanky senior who, along with his entrepreneur partners, wants to market handbags made from recycled jeans, admits that he didn’t work very hard before coming to CART. Now he’s earning A’s in his lab, and, like most of his classmates, he plans to go to college. His real aim, though, is to become a successful businessperson like his parents, who own a wholesale company that taps into hot trends, such as scooters and antenna flags. “From the first day here, I knew things were going to be different,” he notes. “At most public schools, they just say, ‘Read the book and you’ll be fine.’ But a lot of [students] don’t work that way.”

Ron’s mom, Mindy Chakov, appreciates what the teachers have done for her son. “CART isn’t for everybody,” she admits, “but Ron, he’s the kind of kid who is creative and has a lot of his own ideas. At CART, the teachers really respect the students. They want their input instead of saying: ‘Oh, you’re just a kid. I’m not going to listen to you.’ ”

CART does face opposition. It has yet to attract enough teenagers to reach capacity.

Though most students and parents are pleased with CART, the school does face opposition. It has yet to attract enough teenagers to reach capacity, which is 1,350 students. Administrators, however, are confident that they’ll do so and even hope to build sister schools at some point, starting with one in Youa’s neighborhood. Should they begin making concrete plans for more schools, they may encounter resistance. When CART was built, some local public school principals complained that it would lure away good teachers and students. And representatives of the Fresno Teachers Association argued that money spent on the charter school belonged instead in traditional public schools. In fact, CART’s creators agreed to offer only half-day programs in part to avoid concerns about competing with existing schools.

Some teachers question the whole career-based model. A number of Fresno and Clovis teachers discourage their higher-performing students from signing up for CART, arguing that it’s nothing more than a fancy vocational school. Other educators are suspicious of the school’s integrated curriculum, in which chemical engineering students fulfill an English requirement by reading science- related memoirs and novels.

“Getting prepared for a job is not at all the same as learning to think and write intelligently,” insists Jon Reider, a longtime admissions associate director at Stanford University who now counsels college-bound students. “I don’t want to sound like an academic mandarin who thinks a diet of Plato and Descartes is the only path to being educated. But every sophisticated high- level businessperson I have ever met candidly argues for the value of a broad- based liberal arts education.”

Even psychologist Csikszentmihalyi, who applauds the real-world approach, worries whether CART’s teachers can sustain the energy necessary to supervise large classes that demand an improvisational approach. He also notes that kids without a great deal of initiative may fall through the cracks unless they get a lot of guidance. Leroy Graves III, a classmate of Youa’s at Edison High, feels he didn’t get enough help. While he found some of his law assignments interesting, he says he had trouble locating opportunities for hands-on learning. “I only went to the courthouse once,” he says. “I guess I wanted more direction.”

There are other complaints. Dejohn Murray, who was a junior last year and chose not to return, had a hard time fitting in the classes he needed to take at his home school. Plus, he says, waking up at 5 a.m. to catch a bus was no fun. His school’s head counselor, Barbara Sand, says that many seniors also don’t want to miss the good times at their home schools, where rallies, clubs, football games, and proms beckon.

Those out to prove CART’s value to students, parents, and educators are beginning to gather evidence. Because the school is young, there isn’t much to go on yet, but Steve Ward, the chief operating officer, does have some good news. Although last year’s juniors didn’t score impressively on the science section of the Stanford 9 standardized test (a trend reflected across the district, he notes), they made significant gains in language-usage scores. This was particularly the case for students like Youa Her who are still trying to master English. “I think that’s because here they have to work in groups and stand up and make presentations in front of their friends,” Ward suggests. “A lot of it also has to do with motivation. We’re finding that this environment is turning kids around, and instead of being disconnected from the school, now, all of a sudden, they’re connected.”

Senior Ron Chakov recently figured out how to market handbags made from recycled jeans. Like most kids CART tries to reach, he was uninspired at his regular school.
—Steve Goldstein

Nancy Stewart, a medical lab scientist whose son Cameron attends CART’s engineering courses, concurs. “Cam’s extremely bright, but he’s not a real regimented person,” she explains. “He’s one of those people whose room is all over the place and whose life is all over the place, and that doesn’t mesh with your standard classroom type of thing. He was constantly getting berated and constantly flunking, and it was just not working.” But CART teachers, she says, gave Cameron room to explore his interests. His first engineering assignment this year was to help build a catapult to see how far his team could launch a tennis ball. Because they needed to calculate trajectories, the kids had to make use of basic math principles.

“We almost got first place,” the tousle-haired senior says, flashing a braces- filled grin. “Most kids just forget everything they’ve learned right after the test because they don’t need to remember it for anything else. But here the math is not just something I’ve memorized. I’ve actually used it.”

As for Youa, she’s applying her skills to her internship at the Fresno Community Medical Center. Charged with tracking delays in the OR, she interviews hospital staff to figure out why some operations start on time and others don’t. Her mentor at the hospital is impressed with her work, and Youa’s stepmother, Gail Yang, also is pleased. “In the past Youa hasn’t really talked about what her major is going to be,” Yang says. “But once she started participating at CART, I think she really got into it. She’s more focused on what she wants to be and what she wants to do.”

Youa says she may join the U.S. Naval Reserve and serve as a medical officer on an aircraft carrier. Or maybe she’ll go to Johns Hopkins University, where she can work alongside her idol, renowned pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson. After all she’s been through, her dreams don’t sound that far-fetched. “I remember, when I was a little girl in Laos, every night I’d look up in the sky and see stars, and I’d think, America is out there. Why can’t I get there?” she recalls.

Now that she’s made it to “the freedom country,” she’s not about to quit. She passionately sums up a lesson she’s learned by working with CART teachers: “Without education, you cannot go anywhere in the world.”


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