Maybe you’ve already heard the news that High Tech High International, a charter school in Point Loma, is one of three finalists in the whole country competing to get the president to speak at graduation.

So what makes High Tech High International so special?

The school is one of several run by High Tech High, a group of charter schools that focus on projects that crisscross different academic subjects. Charters are publicly funded but independently run, giving them freedom to set their own rules and curriculum.

What do they do that sets them apart? Here are three examples of things that make the High Tech High schools unique:

Interactive, hands-on learning. The name of the game at High Tech High is project-based learning, where students create something of their own to explore and explain a topic. The projects often transcend the boundaries of academic subjects, mixing art, science, music, math and literature. Edutopia gives a good example:

In some classes, like Jay Vavra’s junior biology course on conservation forensics using DNA barcoding, a full five-week period consists of a single project. In many cases, community members participate as experts, clients, or final judges. Teachers try to design the projects to mesh multiple subject areas, allow students the flexibility to choose their own focus and approach and, ideally, serve a useful purpose beyond schoolwork

In Vavra’s class this fall, pairs of students were making observations about meat samples in test tubes and preparing to isolate the DNA to identify which meat was which. (Construction of Vavra’s lab was underwritten by Biocom, a consortium of southern California life sciences companies.) Once the teens learned the procedure called crude cell extraction, says Vavra, who holds a PhD in marine biology, their project would be to find ways to do it more cheaply and efficiently. Ultimately, conservationists will use the improved procedure in African street markets to identify meat from illegally poached animals.

And the projects that students there do are so interesting they tend to grab news on their own. For instance, the Union-Tribune reported that one teacher enlisted kids to help renovate his bungalow, using it as a real-life lesson in interior design. The San Diego News Network included a whole list of unique High Tech High projects in its reporting on the schools, including art dioramas with videos to bring awareness about issues impacting the local blood bank and using computer software to create a mathematical image pertaining to a historical figure.

Really cool buildings. Almost anything you read about High Tech High can’t help but bring up its unusual campuses, which don’t look like your typical high school. The Union-Tribune rhapsodized about “plenty of glass, galvanized steel and openness” in an editorial on its expansion into Chula Vista. Oprah noticed lots of laptops and fewer books.

And Marsha Sutton, then at SDNN, rattled off even more: “lofty ceilings and expansive open spaces with overhead walkways, abundant use of glass for transparency and openness, teaching clusters, gallery spaces, studios, comfortable furniture in meeting areas, movable walls for flexibility, outdoor learning spaces, and other design features consistent with the original vision of providing new ways of teaching and learning.”

Hiring bonanzas. Because High Tech High is independently run, it can hire and fire its employees using different rules than typical public schools. High Tech High brings wannabe teachers in droves for a “bonanza” of an interview. Potential teachers teach a sample class, have a frank group discussion on sensitive subjects like race and class, and are even grilled by students.

The school credits its wringer of an application process for bringing in teachers who really buy into their philosophy and way of learning. Check out our article from two years ago about how it works. And it even runs its own graduate school of education to start growing its own teachers, too.

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To explain for themselves what makes High Tech High International so special and to get their shot at hearing Obama speak on graduation day, students there submitted a video and essays about their school. Check out the video here!

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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