High achievement at High-Tech High

San Diego’s High-Tech High is turning around students from low-income, left-behind families. Test scores are high and all graduates in the first two class have gone on to college. Forbes profiles the founder and principal, Larry G. Rosenstock.

Rosenstock, 56, is betting that schools like this one can work anywhere, as long as they’re kept small. Size, he says, is one of the things that doom city high schools: “These are factories, not places you want to go to learn.” Nationwide, 30% of ninth-graders drop out before graduating. One study of 2,000 big schools found a 40% dropout rate.

Rosenstock is creating a nationwide network of urban charter schools with financial help from the Gates Foundation, which is funding small high schools. Qualcomm’s founder, Irwin Jacobs, also is an early backer.

Enrollment is capped at 500 students; students take four classes a day, so they can spend more time on each subject. “Internships and group projects replace a lot of textbook reading. Twice the physics class has built a working submarine.”

Operating costs are kept low, which enables High Tech High to break even on 73% of the average funding for San Diego’s traditional public high schools.

Rosenstock hires young teachers, most of them with less than five years’ experience, and puts them on one-year contracts. There’s no football or baseball or band. Rosenstock’s salary is comparable to that of a headmaster at a private independent school.

The teachers at High Tech High have a hand in budget decisions, spurring them to look for ways to be stingy. At one Wednesday morning meeting they proposed handing out $20 Starbucks gift cards to teachers as incentives for perfect attendance, instead of spending $110 a day on substitutes.

Applicants are selected by lottery. When the family income level rose too high, Rosenstock started sending students to recruit in “churches and community centers in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.”

Each year Rosenstock, like all his teachers, spends two weeks of afternoons schlepping to advisees’ homes. One of his was a Cambodian-Vietnamese girl who lived with eight family members in a two-bedroom apartment. The TV was constantly blaring. “That was their way of having privacy,” says Rosenstock. “I couldn’t hear myself think.” He told her to stay late after school and do her homework there. (She’s now at UC, San Diego).

Catharine Hart, an 18-year-old graduate of High Tech High (now a freshman at Cal State, Los Angeles), cruised through middle school. Her teachers didn’t check her homework, so she often just regurgitated questions in spaces left for answers. “You knew how to just get by, not be noticed too much. Its all about working the system,” she says. When she got to High Tech High, she found a system that was too intimate to disappear into. “We’re the Jewish parents these kids don’t have. We’re constantly asking them, ïDid you do it? Did you hand in the work?'” says arts teacher Jeffrey Robin.

The school has become more structured over time.

In the first year students were in class only three hours a day, with unstructured time for individual projects filling afternoons. Too many kids filled those hours socializing or playing Internet games instead of completing assignments. So the school ended the classless afternoons, filling them with project work closely attended by teachers. “We made mistakes,” says Rosenstock. “We knew what we didn’t want to be more than we knew what we wanted to be.”

But he was able to recognize the problem and change to meet it.

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