College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Do Deeper-Learning Schools Prepare Students for College? An Alumni Perspective

By Contributing Blogger — December 12, 2016 4 min read
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This post is by Rafael Rosas, 2016 graduate of High Tech High Chula Vista and Dartmouth College, Class of 2020

The high school I attended, High Tech High Chula Vista, is unique in every sense of the word. Between project-based learning, Presentations of Learning, and the daily challenge to the established public education system, HTHCV immediately stands out in any pool of high schools. As a student ambassador at HTHCV, I had the opportunity to give tours to all sorts of visitors from around the world: educators, politicians, parents, and prospective students, and in one instance, a television production crew from Brazil. Walking down our one-hallway school, it is very easy to sound impressive and be impressed, as you share about the projects and the school to visitors.

Every single tour, however, the visitors ask something along the lines of “Yeah, this is all fine and dandy, but how does this prepare students for college?”

High Tech students are adept at answering questions, and so most students could form a viable response on the spot; it is what this question implies that I believe parents and students of HTHCV wrestle with. That implication is that we are not prepared to handle college. Because all four of our high school years are project-based, and we do not follow a typical curriculum or structure like most U.S. schools, the assumption is that when we are finally exposed to that “traditional school setting” in college for the first time we will burn and crumble. Are we at a disadvantage in college?

To answer that question, I will share three short stories about my roommate, my first college test, and my Writing class. First, roommate. Right. She’s from LA, took AP Calculus her junior year of high school, got a 5 on the AP test, and spent her senior year as a paid tutor for AP Calc. Here, she is in Math 3. So am I. No disadvantage there.

My first college test was the second week of school for German. You can imagine what a shock that was; during Week 2 at HTHCV we are still playing “Honey I Love You” in the mornings to learn the names of everyone on your team. I studied until 5 in the morning, and got a B+. Although it was the first time in my life I did not get an A, I know I received a grade worth being proud of, and that achievement is definitely something that I can build and improve upon. No disadvantage there.

Finally, I want to share a little bit about my writing class. My school requires all freshmen to complete a first-year writing seminar. After four years of Humanities at HTHCV, never having taken an AP Lit, AP Government, or AP US History class, I was still placed into the Humanities 01/02 Sequence, which is the school’s Honors version of the writing seminar. No disadvantage there. (Unless you consider having to do more reading and more work a disadvantage. If you do, then I accept your argument. I am at a disadvantage, but it is still not the type of disadvantage that we are referring to.)

The most tangible example of me being at a disadvantage in any of my classes is in math, because I had to redefine the limit of a function as d/dx, which Mr. B taught us as a function of dx/dt. That’s it. In fact, at the beginning of class one day as we were reviewing the laws of limits, the professor asked us what the limit of ex was. The class answered that the limit of ex = ex. He proceeded to write that on the chalkboard. He turned to us, raised his eyebrows, then turned back to the chalkboard, and wrote a single word: “Why?” I was immediately transported back to the entire class period we spent with Mr. B, working in groups to prove why the limit of ex = ex. I couldn’t tell if I was taking a math class at an Ivy League University or sitting in Mr. B’s surprisingly well lit, air-conditioned classroom.

Look, everyone gets their ass kicked during their first term/semester of college. Everyone. You will not find one freshman ass that remains unkicked. I write this now, after having survived an entire month of college, with my mental sanity (relatively) intact.

I promise you this: your ass will be getting kicked at the exact same rate as everyone else’s. It will NOT be kicked at a faster or higher rate “because you went to HTHCV” or a similar school committed to deeper learning over standardized test scores. College is supposed to be hard, very hard, and it will be whether you graduated from Phillips Academy, High Tech High Chula Vista, or any other high school in the country.

If you do not believe me, consider this: High Tech High purposely puts its students in new, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable situations. So, if nothing else, my school taught me to adapt to new and different situations. The “traditional school setting” of college is merely one more situation that I have adapted to, and you will too. With hard work, dedication, and responsibility (no more than is asked of any other student), you will adapt, survive and thrive.

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