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New kind of high school pairs projects, technology: Educators hope approach boosts graduation rates

July 30, 2007

Students at three new Indiana high schools this fall are going to learn the California way.

No, they won't be holding classes on the beach. They'll use technology and a project-oriented curriculum to learn about math, science and history, plus gain 21st century skills business leaders say today's work force needs.

The New Technology High School model, which began in Napa Valley, Calif., in 1996, will launch in Indiana this fall with New Tech High at Arsenal Tech, New Tech School of Ideas in Decatur Township and at Rochester High School.

The curriculum starts with pairing two subjects-like geography and algebra, or science and computer technology. Students, each supplied a laptop computer, then will work in groups on a project grounded in a real-world issue or historical event.

Advocates say the approach is more effective than traditional teaching methods, which often require students to learn about subjects independent of one another, through reading and by listening to lectures.

Excited by the approach, local business leaders are getting involved by providing mentoring, internships and money. For example, Techpoint Foundation has kicked in the $150,000 curriculum licensing fee for New Tech at Arsenal. While school districts pick up operating expenses, many of the extra costs, such as building renovations and computers, are donated.

"Today's world is competitive, and this will provide a model of education that will ultimately develop the skills they need in higher education and beyond," said Clarke Campbell, an attorney with the Marion County Prosecutor's Office whose twin, 16-year-old sons will attend New Tech at Arsenal.

"It's an exciting model," said Campbell, also an elected member of the Indianapolis Public Schools board. "Children, when involved, gain a lot of ownership of their education and the classroom and their studies."

For example, Campbell's sons, Garth and Garrett, will study the American and French revolutions in a paired English and world history class. Working in groups, they'll pick a side and research the people involved and why the revolutions happened, said Bill White, academic dean of the school.

In a paired biology and computer technology class, the teen-agers might be asked to pick a side in the stem cell debate. At the end of the year, students will dress in professional attire and make a presentation to people involved in the issue, like a doctor or scientist at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

The school will admit 120 freshmen the first year; 60 have signed up so far, White said. The school will grow to around 400 as a new freshman class is added over the next four years.

IPS has been planning to bring the New Tech High School model to Indiana since the district converted five high schools into 25 smaller schools two years ago.

One of those was Arsenal Technical on the city's east side, a school that graduated less than 44 percent of its seniors last year, according to the Indiana Department of Education.

The 11 New Tech high schools in California graduate nearly 100 percent of their students. Nearly 90 percent enroll in a post-secondary school and almost half go on to careers in science, technology, engineering or math.

"Their success is something we're hoping for and have reason to expect," said Campbell, who, among others, visited a New Tech school in Sacramento, which is being used as a model nationally.

"You hear the rhetoric that all students can learn, but in the traditional setting, that's not always the case," said Paula Henzel, principal at the Sacramento school, which this fall will begin its fifth year. "Generally, the way we teach is not enough like real life, so it doesn't always work. But in our school, I see all kids can learn. That's pretty refreshing and exciting."

All but two of the 130 seniors at Henzel's school graduated last year. And those two had extenuating health issues. Both are set to complete their studies this summer.

But it takes time to ramp up to that level of success, Henzel and others say. During the first year at New Tech high schools, many students don't perform exceptionally well. That's expected, since the schools are always launched in inner-city areas, where poor attendance and failing state test scores are common.

"It takes time to create a new culture, a professional culture," said White, who has sent letters to parents of Arsenal Tech and Broad Ripple high school students promoting the benefits of the rigorous curriculum.

Students also must participate in 20 hours of community service, spend 50 hours in internships, and take 12 hours of university course work before graduating.

Henzel's advice to Indiana educators is to stay true to the model, including its project focus. In one project at her school, students were asked to bring the Iraq war to a peaceful end. Their conclusion: You can't implement democracy because the population has never lived it.

A key component of the model is involvement by local businesses and education-related organizations, such as the Techpoint Foundation, a not-for-profit arm of the statewide technology trade group.

"Techpoint Foundation was looking for a way to get involved in education," said Rip Taggart, executive director of the foundation. "Our goal is to make sure Indiana's kids have a chance to develop 21st century skills, so we're trying to bring the community's technology resources to the schools."

Others are jumping on board.

Executive Services Corp., a not-forprofit that helps schools, has lined up a third of the 30 business partners that will provide mentors to work with students.

"These kids don't have a lot of adult role models in their life," said Trecia Holloway, ESC's director of education, who added that finding volunteers has been harder than expected.

"They don't understand the urban school setting, but IPS is just the same as Carmel and Hamilton Southeastern. These kids need help, too."

One company offering that help is Carmen Commercial Real Estate. In addition to mentors, the Indianapolisbased real estate firm is providing construction services to renovate part of Arsenal Tech for the New Tech format, which requires larger, more open classrooms wired for technology. CSO Architects, a local design firm, also is offering its services.

"Instructors aren't just standing up at the board regurgitating the same information year after year," said Chris Carmen, president of the company. "For IPS, this is a huge step forward in educational reform."
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