Local News

Hands-on projects send high schoolers to college

Posted November 8, 2009 7:25 a.m. EST
Updated November 8, 2009 3:43 p.m. EST

Project Education: Edutopia, a partnership between WRAL-TV and the George Lucas Educational Foundation, brings the story of a California high school where hands-on projects have replaced finals.

High Tech High in San Diego can brag that its model breeds success: Nearly all of its students graduate, and all of its graduates are accepted to college.

The core of High Tech's curriculum is requiring students to do rigorous, hands-on projects in both arts and science classes.

Mari Jacobson's 11th-grade biology class is developing a DNA bar-coding process that will help African law enforcement officials convict poachers.

"I know everybody's serious about it because it's a serious issue, but this a lot more fun than you'd be able to do in any other classroom," grader Mari said.

Instead of being graded on high-stakes tests at the end of the year, students and their work are assessed on an ongoing basis.

"We're always asking kids to kind of describe what it is they're working on, what it is they've discovered, what their plan is for the next day and so on. So the assessment is folded in," said teacher Rob Riordan, whose nickname is "Emperor of Rigor."

Student Chris Connell described how at the end of the year, students must be able to describe what they have learned.

"Instead of taking finals, we do a presentation of learning, where we get up in front of the whole class and teachers and a whole panel of people and tell them exactly what we learned this year, how it can be applied to real life and how you've developed in critical thinking or how you've developed in other things," Chris said.

The result, school officials said, is students who are engaged in their education.

"I tell our visitors who come here, 'Stop any child that you want, grade 6 through 12, at random, and ask them what they're working on and watch what happens,'" said High Tech High CEO and founder Larry Rosenstock. "They'll look you in the eye, and they'll talk to you about what they're working on."

The original High Tech High School has grown into a network of eight public charter school.

High Tech High's 2,500 students gain entrance by lottery and represent all of San Diego's socioeconomic classes.

"I really believe in this place," teacher Jeff Robin said. "I've been here since the beginning, and I think it is absolutely the true way to learn."