High Tech High International News

High Tech High International

One of three schools nationwide competing for a commencement address by President Barack Obama.

By the numbers:

389: Number of students

91: Graduating seniors

24: Average class size

99%: Graduation rate

100%; College acceptance 80%: Acceptance to four-year university

Nothing about High Tech International resembles a traditional public school.

The largely open space is marked by high ceilings, dramatic art and an abundance of glass — offering clear views into well-equipped classrooms and offices.

What’s missing from this charter school is almost as revealing. For starters, there are no textbooks. Or AP classes. There is no daunting security fence surrounding the campus, which lacks many other trappings of the traditional American high school.

Part of a network of Point Loma-based charters, High Tech High International also boasts seemingly impossible statistics, including a 99 percent graduation rate for seniors last year, all of whom were accepted to college (80 percent to four-year universities).

But these days, the biggest source of pride among students and teachers is their chance to have President Barack Obama deliver their graduation speech next month.

The school is among three finalists left in the White House’s Race to the Top Commencement Challenge. Obama is set to announce the winner on Monday.

The competition invites students to write essays and produce videos that show how their school prepares them for college and careers. The contest promotes Obama’s national goal to secure the highest proportion of college graduates worldwide by 2020.

So what is it about this school that makes it worthy of a possible presidential visit?

The open design of the campus is more than an architectural feature, it reflects the school’s philosophy that promotes transparency, discourse, and collaboration among students and teachers.

“First of all, it’s a community. Everybody knows everybody and it would be impossible to slip through the cracks here or become anonymous, ” said senior Breeann MacDonald, who is both gidy and proud that Obama may attend her graduation. “It’s hard not to succeed here because the teachers want you to succeed so badly they’ll basically do anything to help you.”

With 91 students in the class of 2011 — and 389 students schoolwide — the intimate campus aims to foster lasting relationships. Every student is assigned an adviser who monitors their personal and academic development and serves as point of contact to their family.

“At my last school, some teachers didn’t know my name. Everyone knows your name here and you feel like they know your story. You feel like in five years, they will still remember you, ” said freshman Evie Connolly.

High Tech classes go beyond the traditional mode of homework and exams.

Teachers coordinate projects that combine disciplines. For example, a recent “Into the Wild” assignment had students read the book the project was named for in humanities class. They studied plants and animals on a desert camping trip — where they used gear they designed in an engineering lesson. In art class, they bound books that served as journals they used to write about their experience.

Computers replace dated and costly textbooks at this school. Everyone is required to complete an internship. At the end of every course, students must make a presentation to teachers and classmates summing up what they learned — demanding public speaking skills.

“The school introduces you to a work ethic in a very comfortable way, ” said senior Leigh Orlando. “But they also give you all this freedom to pursue whatever you want.”

Every student shares the same level playing field. There are no remedial classes, Advanced Placement courses, gifted programs or valedictorians.

“We believe any kind of tracking can be harmful and it usually ends up dividing students, ” said Dean of Students Melissa Agudelo.

Located in Liberty Station — a former Navy boot camp — the campus is part of a network of charters established by local business and educator leaders that includes two elementary schools, four middle schools, and five high schools in San Diego County. Like all charters, these are independently operated and publicly funded. They also rely on private donations. The charters are free of some education codes and union contracts, allowing them to hire industry professionals and others to teach as they see fit.

Environmental science teacher Krista McCarty said the school makes her work rewarding.

“At other schools there may a few really good teachers. Here, every single teacher is amazing, ” she said. “We all want to raise the bar. How lucky am I to work here?”

High Tech schools receive more applications than available spots — this year 6, 200 students entered lottery for 1, 400 seats.

High Tech High is vying for an Obama commencement with Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis and Bridgeport High School in rural Washington — two high-performing campuses that serve mostly poor and minority students.

Although High Tech High International promotes diversity, it’s students are whiter and more affluent than those in the surrounding San Diego Unified School District, according to 2009-10 statistics from the California Department of Education.

More than a third of High Tech High International students (35.5 percent) qualify for subsidized lunches based on their family’s income, compared to the district’s 64.6 percent. Nearly 38 percent are white, compared with the district’s 24 percent. The school also has fewer students categorized as English Learners — 7.9 percent to the district’s 28.3 percent.

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