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April 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 7

Reinventing the High School Experience

Small, innovative schools use technology to reinvent the high schoolexperience, empowering students to take charge of their own learning.

Stephanie, a student at New Technology High School in Napa,California, points with pride to her office door at Net-FlowInternet Solutions. Before coming to Net-Flow as an intern,she didn't know what career she wanted or what to studyin college. “Now I get paid for what I like to do,”she says. Her boss, Dean, wants her to continue working withthe company by telecommuting while she attends college.
John, who attends High Tech High School in San Diego, exhibitshis latest project on the Smart Board in the school'sconference room to a team of outside experts, teachers, parents,and students. He has worked hard through the trimester to designand develop a highly interactive, Web-based presentation. Theteam members give him valuable feedback and ask to see some ofthe other projects in his vast digital portfolio.
Joe, a student at the Met School in Providence, Rhode Island,sends the business plan for his senior project proposal to localand national foundations. He needs to raise $5,000 sothat he and his Vietnam War-veteran father can travel togetherto Vietnam to visit the places where his father fought andengage in reconciliation activities with the Vietnamese people.Joe will document the trip in video, audio, and a journal andthen publish the story of the trip on his Web site.
The high school experiences of Stephanie, John, and Joe arevastly different from those of their peers at most comprehensivehigh schools. These students attend innovative high schoolscreated through partnerships of educators, business leaders, andparents. Unlike traditional high schools, where students chooseeither a college-bound or general curriculum with compulsory corecourses and a few electives, these schools offer an individualizededucation based on each student's interests and consultationwith each student's teacher/advisors, parents, and workplacesupervisor/mentors.
This article profiles two of these schools—New TechnologyHigh School and High Tech High. The third school—theMet—is described in detail in the article “One Kidat a Time” by Eliot Levine (p. 29).

New Technology High School

New Technology High School ( the brainchild of local educators, business leaders, andparents who responded to the need for a high-tech workforcein the Napa Valley. The school opened in 1996, serving 220students in grades 11–12 from two feeder high schoolsin the Napa Unified High School District and from severalsurrounding districts. Parents and students in these districtsare informed about New Technology High School throughpromotional mailings and five parent information nights eachyear. Students apply by providing an application and a personalessay and are selected by lottery from a pool of eligibleapplicants. Entrance requirements are a 2.0 grade point averageand completion of 9th and 10th grade courses for graduation.
New Technology High school looks like a workplace, not a school.The school's director and principal, Mark Morrison, calls it“a high-tech, high-touch learning environment.”
Technology is integrated into every class, courses areinterdisciplinary and project-based, and each student graduateswith a digital portfolio. In a course called New Media, studentslearn how to use powerful authoring and presentation technologies,which they apply to all their work. In the senior year, eachstudent does a yearlong internship at a local business, manyof them technology-related companies. Students also completean online internship project summary that describes theirexperience and becomes part of their professional digitalportfolio.

High Tech High School

San Diego's High Tech High ( now in its second year. A San Diego Chamber of Commerce taskforce that included more than 40 public and corporate partnersconceived and launched the school to respond to San Diego'stransformation from a military-dominated economy to a high-techregional economy. For two years, the task force developed theplan for the new high school around the principles ofpersonalization, intellectual mission, immersion in the adultworld, and performance-based student work and assessment.
A public charter high school, High Tech High has a diversestudent population that mirrors the San Diego Unified SchoolDistrict. The school opened with 200 students in 9th and 10thgrades. It now has 300 students and will reach 400 studentsin grades 9–12 at full enrollment next year. Students inthe 8th grade from throughout San Diego apply for admission andare selected by lottery. High Tech High mounts a significantrecruiting campaign in San Diego's poorest neighborhoodsto achieve diversity.
When you walk into High Tech High, you feel as though you'rein a workplace. The main section of the school, the Great Room,features student workstation suites under a high ceiling.Classrooms, which the school calls seminar rooms, look differentas well, with comfortable furniture that can be rearranged easilyand Smart Boards on the walls. You rarely see teachers lecturingin this environment; instead, you see students presenting theirwork and ideas.
  • Workstation suites, where each student has a personalcomputer;
  • Project studios, where students work in teams to planand construct 3-D models;
  • Construction labs (a biocom technology lab, animationlab, and engineering lab); and
  • Meeting/presentation spaces for visiting lecturers,mentors, and site supervisors.

Personalizing Students' Experience

At these innovative high schools, students are deeply engagedin their learning and held responsible for their own education.The small size of the schools means that adults and students getto know one another well. Personalization is further enhanced byadvisory groups, in which a teacher/advisor works with the same12–20 students, their parents, and their mentors for thelength of the students' stay at the school.
Students at High Tech High and New Tech High take requiredcourses in math, science, English, history/social studies, andforeign languages that meet the admission requirements of theUniversity of California. Incorporating these requirementsand building on individual interests, each student has apersonalized learning plan that follows a “plan, do, andreview” model. Teacher/advisors meet two or three timesa year in conference with each student and his or her parentsand workplace mentors to create the student's personalizedlearning plan, including projects, courses or seminars,college courses, and internships. The plan includes goals andtimetables. Follow-up conferences are held to review and assessstudent performance.
The following program elements also contribute to the personalizedapproach of these schools.


Student work is built around short- and long-term projects toencourage in-depth work. The New Technology High Web site callsproject-based learningthe backbone of the school's unique learningenvironment. Instead of handing out daily assignments, teachersassign periodic projects with different components. Componentsmay include a written essay and a digital project, such as a Website, PowerPoint presentation, or photo essay. Finally, studentsare asked to present their work orally to their classmates.Students work on these projects either individually, with apartner, or in a group.

Digital Portfolios

Key to the student-as-worker model at these schools is thedigital portfolio, which provides the structure and repositoryfor student work. According to portfolio expert David Niguidula,the digital portfolio is a software tool<BQ>that can help students create a “richer picture”of their skills and accomplishments than traditional transcriptsallow. . . . By providing a more thorough documentation ofhow students are reaching goals, it can give a school betterinformation on how to help individual students and the school as awhole.
Students build digital portfolios and publish them on theschools' Web sites. Portfolios include a personal statement,a current and sometimes a future résumé, studentprojects and work samples, contact information, internshipreflections, letters of recommendation, and assessments. At HighTech High, the portfolio also contains a Spanish version,“Mi Mundo.” New Technology High School, whichpioneered the development of digital portfolios, proudlyexhibits the best student portfolios on its Web site( digital portfolios are much more than archives, accordingto California State University-Monterey Bay Professor JohnIttelson, who is studying the new role of portfolios in highschools and colleges:<BQ>They are exhibits of living documents and integratedprojects that drive the self-motivated student of the newmillennium.</BQ>


At each of these schools, students periodically display andexhibit their projects to their parents, their peers, and thecommunity in public exhibitions. The exhibitions often occurat key transition points, such as the end of the trimester,to motivate students and structure their work. Successfulexhibitions are also required for advancing to the next gradeand for graduation.


For students at these reinvented high schools, an internshipin the workplace or in the community is the cornerstone event thatdifferentiates their high school experience from that of theirpeers in comprehensive high schools. A typical student refrain is, “I never felt as respectedas I feel in my internship.”
Student interns at these schools contribute as members ofproject teams, working closely with adults of all ages. Thestudents exercise high-level technical, cognitive, and communicationskills; solve real-world problems; and build a one-on-onementoring relationship with their mentor/supervisor. They thenreflect on their experience through writing and multimediaprojects, which they often present to their project teams.Students intern at high-tech companies—as New TechnologyHigh School student Stephanie did—or at hospitals,financial institutions, and other workplaces. They alsointern with working artists, design professionals, and videoproducers. Internship placements are made on the basis ofstudent interests. Some internships require a few afternoonsa week for a year; others are as short as three weeks but arefull-time.

Technology's Role

Many believe that technology can best play a role in customizingeducation by delivering a curriculum product to students thatfits their individual skill levels—for example, throughtutorials or computer-assisted instruction. The kind of customizationexemplified by these schools, however, speaks to a new paradigm,where students are agents of their own learning. Technologysupports this new paradigm by giving students powerful tools todevelop their learning goals, plan their projects, and createand present their products.
Technology has already proven its role in increasing productivityin the U.S. workplace. During the 1990s, the U.S. economy experiencedsignificant gains in productivity. Most economists, includingFederal Reserve Bank Chairman Alan Greenspan (1999), credittechnology as the foundation of this gain. This had not been thecase in the 1970s and 1980s, when reports found a productivityparadox where technology investment led to no appreciableproductivity gains (Brynjolfsson &amp; Yang, 1996).
What was different about technology in the 1990s? Key differencesincluded a critical mass of users, more advanced personal workapplications, enterprise-wide applications, and, most important,widespread use of e-mail and intranets for work and corporatecommunications. Not only did individuals become more productive,but also communication and collaboration built community andlessened the need for middle management and supervision. Both ofthese factors made organizations more efficient and contributedgreatly to the productivity surge.
  • Word processing to write papers and journals;
  • E-mail communication to consult experts and partners and tosend work to their project teammates and their teachers;
  • The Internet for investigative research;
  • Multimedia tools to create online multimedia documentsand Web sites; and
  • Video tools, including digital cameras and video-editinglabs.
High Tech High's CEO and principal, Larry Rosenstock,says, “Technology is not studied as a subject; rathertechnology tools, both 2-D and 3-D, are ubiquitous and used forproducing—making, shaping, and forming.” Accordingto Rosenstock, a school slogan is “You can play videogames at High Tech High, but only if you make them here.”

The New Student Workplace

The adult workplace of the 21st century is project-based.Employees work individually and in teams. They write memos,create PowerPoint presentations, and publish Web sites to presenttheir plans to their coworkers, their managers, their clients,and their professional communities.
High Tech High, New Technology High, and the Met are, above all,workplaces for students, similar to today's adult workplaces.These small high schools give students spaces to work in andlearn—individual workstations/cubicles, project rooms,presentation rooms, advisory rooms, and real-world workplaces—andtechnology tools to do their work, to learn through projects,and to turn projects into products that they can exhibit andshare with others.
The U.S. Department of Education has recognized New TechnologyHigh School as a New American Small High School, and the Bill &amp;Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded grants to New Technology High,the Met, and High Tech High to replicate their small high schooldesigns across the country. Unlike today's comprehensivehigh schools, these new high schools customize and reinvent thehigh school experience and provide students with the work spaceand technology tools that they need to do their work.

Brynjolfsson, E., &amp; Yang, S. (1996, February).Information technology and productivity: A review of the literature.Advances in Computers, 43, 179–214.

Greenspan, A. (1999, June 14). High-tech industry in the U.S. economy.Testimony before the Joint Economic Committee, U.S. Congress.

End Notes

1 The Met High School opened in 1996 in Providence, Rhode Island. The initial site for 100 students was housed at the downtown Sawyer Building. A second small Met School of 100 students opened in1999 on Peace Street, in a facility that includes classroom workrooms, project rooms, advisory rooms, and a large common room. Four additional small schools will open in the fall of2002 on a common campus using a similar design for each small school's facilities. For more information on the Met, seethe school Web site (

2 See examples of digital portfolios at David Niguidula's Web site (

3 For a video on high school internship programs, see The Academy X Internship Experience, produced by students at Sir Francis Drake High School, San Anselmo, California. Go to the school Website ( type in Academy X. For more information on Academy X, see “Ready for the World” by Thom Markham and Bob Lenz in this issue (p. 76). Also see the video Powerful Learning Through School-to-Career, available from the Bay Area School-to-Career Action Network (

Bob Pearlman has been a contributor in Educational Leadership.

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