Classroom Technology

High Tech Haven

By Rhea R. Borja — May 29, 2002 17 min read
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New Technology High School in California's Napa Valley provides at least one computer for every student.

At first glance, the 1970s, low-rise stucco building squatting near an animal feed and supply store seems like a typical public school. Only a column painted purple, reaching toward the sky, hints that New Technology High School may be a little different.

Inside, parts of this 223-student school in California’s wine country resemble a dot-com workplace. There are glass-enclosed classrooms, clusters of interactive computer workstations, and high-tech wiring twisting like veins through the rooms. No books are stacked in the library, or research center. Instead, students log on to an “e-library.”

Just as in a well- equipped office, there’s at least one computer for every student, a ratio unheard of even in some of the nation’s wealthiest schools. And the school day here is fluid: No bells ring to signal the end of class, nor must students get permission to use the bathrooms.

Almost all schools nationwide have steadily added technology to their classrooms. But New Tech here in Napa integrates technology into virtually every administrative and academic function. Teachers post curricula, assignments, and student grades online; students create Web- based academic projects and communicate through e-mail and message boards; and parents can tap in to the school’s password-protected Web site to check their children’s work.

This sophisticated technology supports the backbone of the school: a learning system that pushes students to teach themselves and develop workplace skills such as critical thinking, writing, and collaboration. You’ll rarely see teachers here lecturing in front of a class while students passively take notes.

Instead, the teachers will be on the sidelines while students take front and center. Perhaps you’ll see them using advanced flash and animation software to make their online history projects come alive. Or maybe doing online research in small groups, or working at internships at local technology-based companies.

Blend this technology and a student-initiated learning system with an entrepreneurial foundation that runs the school in corporate style, and you have a place that looks more like a business than a typical public school.

New Tech's curriculum director and employees of the school's foundation.

Paul Curtis, New Tech’s curriculum director, stands behind employees of the school’s foundation. From left, Dale Mead, Jill Hayden, Esther Dungan, and Susan Schilling.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

“In the early to mid-1990s, people said they were making high-tech high schools, but they were just providing lots of technology in traditional schools,” says Bob Pearlman, a strategy consultant for the school’s foundation and a former executive director of AutoDesk Foundation, a San Rafael, Calif.-based school reform group.

He says New Tech is different: “They didn’t start with a new concept of learning and school organization.”

The school is one of a number of small, technology-rich high schools cropping up nationwide. They already exist in San Diego, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, and more are planned for Colorado and Maryland.

California appears to be on the forefront of this trend. New Tech will be replicated in at least nine other schools in the state with the help of a $4.9 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The state legislature approved a $6 million grant program to open five more high-tech schools in the next few years.

High-tech schools such as New Tech are also part of a larger movement toward smaller specialty high schools that give students the analytical and business-oriented skills needed for the work world, says Steven E. Miller, a board member of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, a national group of technology education leaders.

In the case of New Tech, an economic-development committee of local business and community people hatched the idea of a technology-oriented high school in 1991. The group’s mission was two-fold: Attract more technology companies and related ventures to the area, and better prepare local students for the workplace.

“The [committee] realized that the high schools then weren’t graduating students who could work in Silicon Valley,” says Paul Curtis, the curriculum director of New Tech, which is part of the 16,500-student Napa Unified School District.

The committee forged partnerships with local businesses, the state and federal education departments, and big corporations, such as Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard. After four years of planning and $1.4 million in renovation and equipment costs, New Tech opened its doors in 1996.

“We’re a hybrid business-education model,” says Mark Morrison, the CEO, or principal, of New Tech, which other districts are trying to copy. “We’ve tried to take the best of both worlds.”

The teenagers who come to New Tech, all juniors and seniors, are not techno-wizards or classroom geniuses, but average students.

The first year, 113 juniors from the Napa district and nearby school systems entered New Tech. Since then, more than 400 students have graduated from the school, which prides itself on its diversity. Thirty-two percent of students come from minority groups, and an equal number come from outside the school district, with some commuting more than an hour to school.

On the state and national levels, New Tech has been the darling of the tech world, garnering awards from California Gov. Gray Davis and earning recognition as a “New American Small High School” from the U.S. Department of Education.

Like many start-ups in the business world, the school has faced challenges, such as creating a curriculum from scratch, trying to curb teacher turnover, and figuring out how to pay for and maintain its expensive technology.

On a picture-perfect April morning, approximately 40 seniors in a political-studies class are seated in front of computers. They’re answering e-mail, reading online school bulletin boards, and checking the daily class agenda on the school Intranet. Like most classes here, this one integrates two subjects— English and U.S. government—and is taught by two teachers in a two-hour block.

School officials believe team-teaching allows one teacher to give intensive individual attention to students while the other instructs the whole class. On this day, political-literature teacher Jetti Matzke chats quietly with a student worried about his senior Web project. Nearby, political-studies co-teacher Mike Smith, an intense young man in shirtsleeves and khakis, walks slowly around the room, telling students to gather in small groups so they can work on team projects.

A steady hum of voices, accompanied by staccato tapping on computer keyboards, fills the sunlit room, accented by purple ladders of fiber-optic and copper wiring running across the ceilings. In one group, four students talk animatedly and scribble notes. And across the room, a few students design their teams’ Web projects.

Another student clicks on the online site Matzke and Smith created for the project, which explores how propaganda is used and how to balance civil liberties such as freedom of speech with the need to ensure national security. On the class Web site, students can watch a short film inspired by 1984, George Orwell’s novel of totalitarian rule, view a comic strip addressing civil liberties, and read an essay on the topic by veteran newsman Walter Cronkite.

Senior Jason Woods works on his school presentation.

Senior Jason Woods, right, gets help from a classmate while preparing “Rebob” for a school presentation. The motorized mini-vehicle is designed to battle similar robots .
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

These online resources help students complete their task: Find a security issue (such as mandating national identity cards), form a political action committee around it, draft legislation, and then create a Web site that explains their position, along with hyperlinks to news articles and other supporting research.

“We’re trying to create a real-world situation for students,” Smith says.

Students learn self-responsibility and feel empowered when they help teach themselves, says Curtis, the curriculum director. “All of us learn that when we’re faced with a dilemma, we go out there and find out what we need to know to solve it. That’s exactly how project-based learning works.”

And just because the school encourages students to master sophisticated technology skills such as using flash animation doesn’t mean they get out of writing term papers, says Matzke. Students must still read books, memorize new vocabulary terms, and learn how to craft an essay.

“They do a lot of writing, even more than my students from my previous school, because they have computers,” Matzke says. “It’s important that they write and read, and all of the projects have those components in them.”

Strangely enough, sometimes New Tech High teachers de-emphasize the use of technology. American-studies teacher David Ross, for instance, will soon require students to research a project the old-fashioned way—through books and academic papers at local universities and public libraries—not via the Internet. They have to learn that not everything is on the Web, he says.

“Kids have a perverted sense of information,” says Ross, a former journalist in Southern California. “Some have never been in a library before.”

The students who come to New Tech, all juniors and seniors, are not techno-wizards or classroom geniuses. A 2.0 grade point average and algebra are the main requirements to attend the school. Rather, these were B and C students at their old schools—teenagers drawn to the school largely because it offers a more personalized school experience and a more flexible environment.

But there are drawbacks. The school offers no extracurricular activities, such as sports or band. Students who want to participate in such activities must travel to other schools or give up after- school activities.

Still, senior Matt Mulczynski found New Tech High to be a perfect fit for him. “I don’t fit into traditional schools—I’m an individual thinker,” the blond 18-year-old says confidently. “There were also distractions at my old school; there were a lot of cliques, and I didn’t like that.”

As he talks, he scrolls through his senior Web portfolio, where his home page shows a dark sea with lightning flashing into the waves. He wants to join the U.S. Coast Guard when he graduates, so his online portfolio has a nautical theme. Looking back over his two years here, Mulczynski says classes at New Tech are more challenging than at his former high school.

"[Learning] isn’t textbook- based, and it’s not force-fed to you,” he says as he clicks through his online academic projects. “You have to solve problems, and you get graded not on the solution, but on how you got to that solution.”

Student Colleen Hayter sits nearby. She came to New Tech because she didn’t feel challenged as a student at a private Christian school. The senior, clad in jeans and a T-shirt, tucks a strand of long brown hair behind an ear and reflects on her choice to come here.

“I was getting A’s at my old school without even trying,” she says. “Here, I have to work real hard to get a B.”

The teacher-turnover rate at the California school is high. New Tech officials attribute that partly to a bigger workload.

Besides taking core academic and technology courses, New Tech students must pass four college courses at Napa Valley Community College, complete 20 hours of community service, serve a yearlong career-based internship, and create a senior project, which they must present to the community.

Senior projects are as diverse as the students who attend the school. Some are based on students’ future careers, such as creating an online business.

One senior held an “awareness event” to help students prepare for life after high school. The event featured booths by the local chapter of Planned Parenthood, an insurance agency, and other businesses. The senior also passed out handbooks giving job-interview tips, a career- planning checklist, and a worksheet on healthy eating.

About half the internships are technology-related; one student built a Web site for a local business. The other half range from shadowing a professional pastry chef to assisting a physical therapist.

Mulczynski, for one, interned at the nearby California Maritime Academy, where he learned nautical-navigation skills, took marine science and sailing classes, and helped maintain the boats. Another student interned at a local elementary school as a computer technician. He took a roomful of used computer parts and rebuilt six computers. Then he taught the elementary youngsters how to use the machines.

Students must also create a Web portfolio demonstrating what they’ve learned at New Tech. Senior Andre Minor’s online portfolio, for example, includes his résumé, letters of recommendation. It also includes examples of his academic work, such as an interactive Web project on Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

More than 90 percent of New Tech students go on to college or other postsecondary schools. But while the students are interested in computers and interactive software, most don’t enter the high-tech field when they graduate. Indeed, school officials go out of their way to point out that the school’s aim is not to transform them into computer technicians. New Tech’s mission is broader: to provide students with the analytical, communication, and other skills and knowledge to excel in any job.

Senior Chris Baldomero, a talkative student with a mop of black hair, says that “technology is just a tool to reach our goals.”

One thing that preoccupies school officials here is funding. Because of technology costs, New Tech High spends more than $1,500 more per student a year compared with a traditional public school. And the school spends more than $250,000 each year either upgrading its two T1 servers or modernizing its computers.

School officials quickly realized that to survive and flourish, they needed to form a business that would generate money for the school. So, in 1999, New Tech High started its own foundation.

Students researching ideas for a school project.

Eddie Cowles, a junior, gets help from classmates Stephanie Goodman, left, and Ashlyn Matson, right, while researching ideas for a project in the school’s research center. By design, the center contains no printed books.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

Operating from a small, one- story building across the street from the school, the New Technology Foundation is forming partnerships with other districts and businesses, finding funds to keep the school running and building a system so New Tech can be replicated in other California school districts, and perhaps across the country. The New Technology Foundation also runs teaching institutes and leases its videoconferencing center and computer labs to the community.

“Start-ups are tough—we have to be entrepreneurial,” says Morrison, the school’s CEO. “At some point we have to be a self-sustaining revenue model.”

Foundation officials are now working on a replication system they plan to roll out soon. When funding from the Gates grant dries up several years from now, officials hope school districts will purchase the replication system, which will include intensive staff training, curricular materials, and mentoring. Replicating the school in a comprehensive and a cost-effective manner is one of the hardest parts of making New Tech High a success, school officials say.

So far, the outlook is promising. Two northern California school districts are working with New Tech to open their own technology high schools later this year. And at least two more are slated to open in the next two years.

Adam S. Littlefield is the technology coordinator for Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District, one of the districts that will open a new technology school this coming fall. He says that without New Tech’s help, his system’s technology high school might have remained a dream.

“These are people who are like-minded, who have the same dreams and goals,” he says. “That’s the power of the network that’s being developed.”

Still, New Tech High has faced obstacles, including finding teachers that fit into its nontraditional environment. The teacher- turnover rate is high at New Tech. The school has 10 teachers, and over the years, nine others have come and gone. The reasons people leave vary, from going back to school to having a baby or moving away, according to school officials.

But they also say that teaching at New Tech is 360 degrees different from teaching at a traditional school, and that perhaps for some, the change was too much. One teacher gave notice on a weekend that he wouldn’t be coming back on Monday, according to school officials. Another, they say, left in the middle of the school year after wilting under the increased workload.

The teachers who flourish here, says Curtis, describe themselves as “frustrated reformers.” They are educators who eschew textbooks and instead create their own online class curriculum, complete with interactive Web sites, digital video, and real audio. They’re willing to team- teach and share their projects with other teachers in the building.

“I’m not a fan of one-size-fits-all education,” Smith says. “That’s why I’m here.”

The students at New Tech choose to come here, so most fit in the less structured classroom environment, school officials say.

It’s more rewarding to teach here, but it’s also more work, teachers say. They constantly update their student projects, and completely revamp their curriculum every three years to keep it fresh.

“This is a fast-paced school,” says Brooke Armstrong, an enthusiastic first-year teacher. “I struggle to keep up with all that’s going on, developing the next project and at the same time improving previous projects.”

She also echoes her colleagues when talking about how the glass-walled classrooms and constant stream of visitors from other school districts make her feel as if she’s on display sometimes. “You can’t have a bad or lazy day,” she says. “You can’t drop the ball in here.”

New Tech requires more teacher input, but it also tries to compensate teachers for their additional time. Teachers are paid for an extra one hour and 15 minutes of work four days a week to stay after school and take professional-development seminars, attend staff meetings, and get advice and support from colleagues on school projects. They’re also paid one week in the summer to work with their co-teachers on class curriculum.

School officials have recently refined their interviewing process and added more teacher training to make sure they hire candidates who will fit in well at New Tech. All candidates must undergo individual interviews with every teacher, and are asked open-ended questions, such as their philosophy of teaching and how to solve certain staff and student challenges. Once they are hired, all teachers attend a summer staff retreat.

“It is critical that we find teachers with not only a solid foundation of content,” Curtis says, “but also with the right mind- set to work in this environment.”

The students at New Tech choose to come here, so most fit in the less structured classroom environment, school officials say. But a handful have not done well, goofing off and disrupting classes, or worse. A few stole computer passwords, for example, or hacked into the computer system, making it crash.

Student Monica Burton puts the finishing touches to her senior project.

As part of her senior project, Monica Burton, above, prepares a gourmet dessert for some visitors to the school.
—Courtesy of New Tech High

No student has ever been formally expelled from the school, Curtis points out. But about six students since 1996 have had to leave the school for a period of time on “stipulated expulsions.” Such students, for the most part, returned to their old high schools, as have students who committed repeated offenses.

There have been other problems, too. Some students at other schools feel that New Tech High students are arrogant, or get preferential treatment, say some New Tech students. Some local schools may also feel a little competition, as they lose state and federal funds when their students leave them to attend New Tech High.

Even the weather can be a challenge. During the state’s energy crisis last year, the school suffered two rolling blackouts. Ross, the American-studies teacher, recounted two blackouts that shut down the entire school network. No one could view the curriculum, student grades, or anything else. At this school, a power failure can bring business to a halt.

Back in the political-studies class on that bright spring day, class is ending. Students start to log off their computers, fold up their handwritten notes, and type last-minute e-mail messages. They trickle out, and the computers sit with their screens dark.

For a few moments, all is quiet; even the computers’ electronic hum is almost inaudible.

Then the next class comes in. Students noisily drop their backpacks on the floor and talk loudly. They sit at their computers and log on. Once again, the sound of clacking computer keys fills the room.

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 2002 edition of Education Week as High Tech Haven


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