A small, nurturing high school with lots of project-based learning sounds like an education utopia. But does it prepare students for college? Hechinger’s Andra Cernavskis looks at High Tech High, a San Diego charter lauded by the new documentary, Most Likely to Succeed.
SAN DIEGO — During her junior year of high school, Grace Shefcik wrote and directed a play about the Lavender Scare, the time during the Cold War in the 1950s when gay and lesbian people lived in fear of prosecution. . . .
Like most high school juniors, Shefcik and her classmates were studying American History. Unlike most students, however, they did not read a text and then take a test; their English and History instructors for the semester had groups of students research a subject, write it as a play, and then, as a class, produce the three top picks.
At the University of California, Santa Cruz, Shefcik encountered lectures, textbooks, essays and exams.
“Assignments are most engaging when it’s something I relate back to,” Shefcik says. “The play was something I was really passionate about. It was something I got constant feedback and support on over the year. In college, you don’t get the feedback or see the paper again unless you go back the next quarter and ask for the final paper back, but that’s unheard of.”
“I didn’t really learn study habits at High Tech High,” Shefcik says. “We definitely did testing, but it wasn’t emphasized as important as it is here. Learning how much time I should be studying or even how to study was difficult in my first quarter.”
Mara Jacobs, a High Tech High graduate who’s now at Cornell, “had a harder time transitioning than other students,” she says. “I couldn’t just do the work if I wasn’t bought into how I was being taught.”
Two-thirds of the school’s graduates enroll in four-year colleges and universities and the rest in community colleges. Because of college costs, nearly all end up at large, public institutions.
More than 70 percent of High Tech High graduates from all five schools in the network have earned a degree or are still in college, according to school administrators. That compares to 39.9 percent of 18- to 24-year olds who were enrolled in degree-granting programs nationally in 2014, writes Cernavskis.
Most students make the transition. Shefcik organized study groups, made the dean’s list and chose a cognitive science major.
I don’t think it’s just a question of project-based learning. Small schools that concentrate on engaging students need to prepare their graduates for a world that’s not always engaging.