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San Diego’s High Tech High Competing For President Obama

High Tech High in San Diego has a variety of spaces and furniture, giving stu...

Photo by Christopher Gerber / High Tech High San Diego

Above: High Tech High in San Diego has a variety of spaces and furniture, giving students and work groups more flexibility for study and collaboration.

A San Diego Charter high school is among three finalists competing to get President Obama to speak at their graduation ceremony.


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The commencement challenge invited schools across the country to demonstrate how their school best prepares students for college. At High Tech High International in Point Loma, it already feels like college.

When you first walk through the door of this airy, modern campus, you can sense something is happening here. Students are working together on a musical project, not in a classroom, but out in the open where anyone who walks in the door can see and hear them. There are no school bells or teachers telling students to hurry to class. Instead, it feels more like a high-tech company start-up. Where everyone's collaborating on projects.

"We think that kids should be engaged in the work their doing and they should produce meaningful work for a real audience." said Ben Daley, the schools Chief Administrative Officer. "We want kids not just getting a paper and a C-minus and throwing it in the trash, but making something that has lasting value and presenting it to professionals in the field and getting feedback and seeing themselves enter the adult world," Daley said.

It's called Project Based Learning. By focusing students on specific projects, teachers put them on a path to deepen their knowledge and build skills they'll need in the future. The emphasis here is on critical thinking, collaboration and communication. Something often missing in traditional classrooms.

"Ninety-eight percent of our graduates have gone off to college. Seventy-eight percent have either graduated college or are still enrolled at this point" Daley said.

High Tech High started with 200 students and 12 teachers in 2000. It will grow to 4,500 students and 200 teachers and 11 schools in three locations this fall.

"I've often heard people say that high-tech can seem like a bit of a misnomer," said Melissa Agudelo, dean of students at High Tech High International.

"But really I think what makes us more cutting edge is that problem solving we ask the kids to do and the collaboration they have to do. Our teachers won't sweep in and fix things, students have to muddle through and figure things out on their own." Agudelo said.

The school is already known around the world through videos plastered all over the Web. Now seniors at High Tech High International are using the same techniques to lure the President of the United States. "There's a lot of talk in President Obama's campaign about the 21st Century workforce" said Rishika Daryanani, a senior and chair of the commencement ceremony project.

"If you look around what that actually means is technological skills, leadership skills, ethics. And all of those things are embodied in High Tech High International. We produce videos, we're out in the community doing good work and I think that really sets us apart from the other schools," Daryanani said.

The students had to produce two videos to illustrate how the school prepares them for college and careers. The second video put serious deadline pressure on nearly half of the senior class. They worked two 18 hour days to complete it.

What may really put the school over the top is the success of students like Anthony Conwright. "It started when I was 14, I went to a really bad school and my mom heard of this crazy school called High Tech High," Conwright said. He was among the schools first 200 students and graduated in 2003. "Right after High school I started working at High Tech middle because it just opened up and I've been here ever since." This fall Conwright becomes a full-time teacher at High Tech. President Obama will name the winner of the commencement competition next week.

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