This year, York House School embarked on a learning exchange of a different kind. In April, several teachers and administrators from York House School had an opportunity to visit acclaimed San Diego charter school High Tech High (HTH). Their visit was soon followed by the arrival of two enthusiastic HTH students, Sharon and Emily, who would be hosted by York House for a month-long internship.
The idea of HTH was initiated in 1996, by a group of approximately 40 civic and technology industry leaders in San Diego, California, who came together to address the continuous challenges they were facing in the US to find young graduates who were qualified to work in the technology sector. These leaders also shared a growing concern about the “digital divide” that resulted in low numbers of women and ethnic minority groups entering STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) related fields.
Their intent was clear: to create a school where students would be passionate about learning and would acquire the basic skills of work and citizenship needed to succeed in the 21st Century. With this in mind, they set the following goals for their school:
- Serve a student body that mirrors the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the local community;
- Integrate technical and academic education to prepare students for post-secondary education in both high-tech and liberal arts fields;
- Increase the number of educationally disadvantaged students in math and engineering who succeed in high school and post-secondary education;
- Graduate students who will be thoughtful, engaged citizens.
In 1999, the founding group submitted their Charter application and in September of 2000 the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High opened its doors to 200 students in Grades 9 and 10. High Tech High now consists of 13 schools (five high schools, four middle schools and four elementary schools) in three locations in the San Diego area with approximately 5,000 students and 600 employees who are selected from a blind, zip code based lottery. 60% of the students are ethnic minorities and 42% qualify for a free reduced lunch. To date, 98% of graduates have gone on to college and 75% to four-year postsecondary institutions.
The school has garnered a great deal of attention in its relatively brief history and, on average, has 2000 visitors per year and just last year, was showcased by Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators, in the Sundance award-winning documentary “Most Likely to Succeed.”
Ensuring the success of High Tech High has required an innovative approach to both teaching and learning as new schools are introduced. New schools are “seeded” with a principal, teachers and even students who have already lived and worked in a High Tech High school. Through experienced leadership, they are able to ensure that their principles of reflective practice and peer learning are upheld in the interest of creating a shared sense of purpose.
It is their commitment to student centred learning, project-based learning and the spirit of innovation that captured the attention of York House School’s Head of School, Chantal Gionet. “I wanted to give our faculty the opportunity to experience new approaches to cross-disciplinary project-based learning and to look at alternative ways to foster creativity and collaboration among our students. Several faculty had the opportunity to visit High Tech High in the spring and, based on their experience, we decided to invite Sharon and Emily to visit us for a one month internship. It was a win-win for everyone, as we were able to carry our learning beyond the doors of High Tech High and share with the broader York House School community,” says Chantal.
As part of their enrollment at HTH, senior students are required to complete a one month internship in Grades 11 and 12. For Sharon and Emily, both in Grade 11, York House School presented the perfect opportunity for shared learning for their first internship experience. They could each focus on a project of their choice and be mentored along the way by YHS faculty. At the end of their internships, they each presented to the administration and faculty as well as to their mentors.
For Emily, deciding what she wanted to do for her internship was quite simple. At York House, she would be able to explore her desire to become a Junior School teacher. An eye-opening experience, this behind-the-scenes look at the world of a teacher left her appreciating the challenges of professional life and the level of exhaustion that parents must feel after a day’s work. She had the opportunity to spend time in both the Little School as well as with the Grade 2 and Grade 5 classes at the Junior School. In particular, Emily thoroughly enjoyed working with Erin Reindl’s Grade 5 class to create a mini-project where the girls were challenged to create an invention and explore the difference between invention versus innovation.
Commenting on her experience, Emily says, “I was so impressed by the inventions that the students came up with over two weeks. However, the one thing I would change, if I had to do it over again, is that I would give the students the opportunity to come up with their own ideas for the projects. That way, they would inject even more passion into their work.”
Grade 5 teacher Erin Reindl says, “It was truly a wonderful experience having Emily come to work in the Grade 5 class. She displayed a genuine passion for teaching and made strong connections with the students. It was an enriching and engaging opportunity for everyone.”
Sharon, an Ambassador at High Tech High, chose a different route for her internship and focused more on how she could interpret the pedagogy behind High Tech High, from a student’s perspective. As part of her project, she would work closely with her York House mentors as well as faculty, students and administration.
“At High Tech High we don’t have finals as such but presentations of work we have completed throughout the year. We are challenged to take what we have learned and present it to an audience in a way that is our own. We are taught that the understanding of content is significant but so is your ability to communicate, to work as a team, to adapt to new technologies and to solve multidimensional problems ,” says Sharon. “The focus is really on demonstrating our learning. Using math as an example: are you assessing my ability to recite a formula and plug in variables or are you testing my understanding of how this formula works and how it is derived?”
As part of her internship, Sharon attended department meetings to share feedback with faculty members regarding projects they are looking to implement. She also met with Grade 8 Social Studies and English teachers who are working on developing an interdisciplinary first term project.
York House Social Studies Teacher and one of Sharon’s mentors, Meredith Seymour, comments, “Working with Sharon gave me an opportunity to ask questions and gain first-hand insights about project-based learning, from one student’s perspective. Most notably, Sharon offered practical resources and implementation examples about the project-based process as it is conducted at High Tech High. After visiting High Tech High in April and seeing these projects in action, it was really valuable for me to have Sharon come here and engage in a dialogue imagining how certain elements of projects could be successfully incorporated into the work I am doing at York House.”
“Hosting students from High Tech High at YHS has provided opportunities to explore questions about projects that people are working on here. Through conversations with YHS staff and faculty, Sharon and Emily created helpful documents outlining tips for project-based learning initiatives and protocols. These will be made available to educators at the school and will provide a helpful resource and springboard for future conversations,” says York House English Teacher Kara McDonald.
Sharon and Emily also hosted lunches for YHS educators interested in learning more about project-based learning. They described the students’ perspectives on what is beneficial about this student driven model of learning and the challenges some students encounter. Emily described HTH as a school that prepares students for life and both Sharon and Emily agreed that if there is one thing that we could do more of at YHS, it would be peer critique. They shared tuning protocols with some of our faculty to give critical feedback on projects, and Sharon made documents for teachers outlining critiquing protocols they could use with their students.
Commenting on the similarities between HTH and York House School, Sharon says, “Both schools are quite passionate about projects, incorporating them into the curriculum and making learning applicable. I was so impressed with the Grade 7 civilization project that Mrs. Webb developed. She is so an intuitively project-based teacher.”
“This experience has been incredible. Emily and I both know how lucky we are to have been treated as young adults even though we are still high school students. Everybody has been amazing. It really was a fun community to be part of for a while,” reflects Sharon.
The girls left Vancouver, having not seen the rain (our unusually sunny weather only reminded them of San Diego) but grateful for the friendships that they made and the learning that they shared with the York House community. A special thank you to YHS Grade 10 student, Claire, and her family, who generously hosted Sharon and Emily for the duration of their visit. Claire is looking forward to visiting High Tech High next year.