Elementary School Principal's Blog

Journey's end, Part II: Insights from Our Visit to San Diego

Posted on November 1, 2009

by Dr. Edna Hussey on November 1, 2009

In last week's posting, I explained the purposes for visiting High Tech High in San Diego with a team of colleagues from the middle school and high school.  We were looking for a school community successful in creating a school culture that combines a challenging academic curriculum with project-based learning, performance-based assessments, digital portfolios, and internships for all students.  The team and I, as well as the teams representing 17 other Hawaii schools receiving Schools-of-the-Future grants, learned first-hand from within the classrooms and talking with teachers and students, how HTH functions.  Here are my impressions:
HTH is composed of a diverse study body. Admission to this fully accredited public school is by lottery, so students are accepted from all socio-economic levels. 100% of the graduating class is accepted to some of the best colleges in the nation, and the students are among the top scorers on statewide-standardized tests in San Diego. Graduates report being confident when working with adults and feeling prepared for the junior and senior levels of college because of their experiences at HTH.

Classroom spaces are fairly large and spacious with high ceilings and large windows that open to hallways and outside areas.  Art is everywhere, although HTH is not an art school.  The paintings, robotic constructions, structures hanging from ceilings, and murals are all student-designed and are the result of classroom inquiries and projects.  If the environment is the third teacher, a Reggio Emilia principle, then HTH's environment tells the stories of student learning. It's apparent that art is one of the means for processing and communicating understanding. Art is a language for communication and thinking, which is another familiar Reggio Emilia principle, though this is not a Reggio Emilia-inspired school.

At HTH, everyone takes the same level of classes. Everyone is held to the same high standards and expectations for learning. No honor classes, no remedial classes, no IB program, no gifted and talented, no advanced classes.  If students need extra help, teachers work with these students in small groups as needed. In every classroom I visited, there was a pervasive sense of purposefulness -- students engaged in writing, working in small groups, conferring with peers, directing questions to a teacher, or collaborating in front of computers. And the teachers -- walking from group to group in a classroom, asking questions, looking at writing and notebooks, recording student comments on the board, in discussion with other colleagues, or listening to students explain a prediction. There were no students loitering in the hallways or restrooms. Everyone was either in class or on their way to class.  Students who spoke with us or whose conversations we overheard seemed articulate and bright.

Learning is project-based -- students create something or do something to understand a concept and to demonstrate learning.  The curriculum, designed by the faculty, must incorporate California's learning standards, so it is rigorous and highly academic. The projects take many forms -- simple machines, designing and constructing a potato gun to learn about trajectory, building a submersible, reverse engineering, stop-animation videos, a math casino night, a project about time travel.  Many projects are interdisciplinary and require team-based problem solving strategies.  We learned about a project called "Media Save the Beach" that students designed after learning that the state of California cut funding to periodic water testing of San Diego locales.  Students collected water samples and informed the public about locales that should be avoided due to water contamination. Students wrote a field guide, currently available on Amazon, that the general public can purchase.  Students are given individual letter grades on projects, not group grades, so every student is held accountable for an aspect of the project from beginning to end. 

The "final exam" is typically an evening presentation of learning to an audience of mostly parents, though other students and members of the community also attend. Each student describes his learning process, the challenges, the significance of the project and its relevance to the "real" world.  Parents also come to the school each quarter to attend a student-led conference wherein the student reviews her progress via an electronic portfolio.  Reflection is a critical part of the learning process, and students stop along the way in their projects to reflect on their learning. 

The faculty at HTH view themselves as facilitators of their students' learning. They are passionate about their teaching, and their enthusiasm inspires their students to learn. They are genuinely respectful of their students.  To build community and strengthen student-teacher relationships, every teacher is responsible for a cohort or advisory of 20 students from across the grade levels.  Teachers meet daily for 45 minutes before students enter the campus so that they can collaborate on the curriculum and projects.  Teacher offices, located throughout the school, have glass fronts so the teachers are highly visible to their students.

I have not reported anything about the elementary school affiliated with HTH because Explorer Charter Elementary has done little or no collaboration with HTH. However, I can report that my visit to Explorer Elementary revealed that MPI's preschool and elementary are quite progressive terms of curriculum, instructional practices, and assessment of student learning.  My visit to HTH was nonetheless very important because I could see a school model in HTH  that embodies many of the characteristics of a "school of the future."  

This coming Tuesday evening, November 3rd, at 6:30pm in Bakken auditorium, Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, will speak to all parents of students in independent and private schools in Hawaii.  If you would like to learn more about the impetus for school change, I urge you to attend his presentation.  Mr. Wagner will also spend the day at MPI visiting classes this Thursday, meeting with students and faculty and other representatives of constituent groups. 

Just a reminder:  The order deadline for the PCA's gift card fundraiser is this Friday, November 6. No late orders will be processed. Please submit your order and payment to our office. 

It's not too late to attend Tuesday's presentation. You are on this journey with us.

For our children,

Edna L. Hussey