New Tech High School, Napa - Growing What Works

As part of the California visioning tour with Zach (see last week’s posting), we visited the New Tech mother ship in beautiful Napa, California.  I had visited Columbus Signature Academy, a New Tech School, in Columbus Indiana a couple of years ago and fell in love with the New Tech Network (NTN) curriculum and pedagogy - I was very much looking forward to visiting the school where the Network first started.

Our tour kicked off with an overview of New Tech, its students, pedagogical model and curriculum.  We were hosted by Paul Curtis, NTN Director of District Transformation - Paul kicked off the tour by modeling the New Tech pedagogy - inviting us to take charge of our learning by asking “What do you need to know (about New Tech)?” Our questions ranged from the philosophical underpinnings of the curriculum, the genesis and growth of the network, and the granular ‘on the ground’ implications of building a project based curriculum from scratch in a traditional high school environment.

I was particularly interested in New Tech’s district partnership model and how it approached its change leadership role.  Paul highlighted the following levers of change when adopting the New Tech model with fidelity:

  • School culture - the NTN values, i.e “Trust, Respect, Responsibility”modeled by students, teachers, administrators are critical
  • Providing a structure for team teaching and teacher collaboration
  • Block schedules - to allow for depth of inquiry
  • 1:1 computing - seamless use of technology as a non-negotiable for project based learning
  • Structure is more important that training
  • Training events and building in time for professional development

Paul sketched out an interesting analogy when comparing the role of structure and training when facilitating change.  He asked us to imagine we spent the summer training for the game of football, for ten weeks straight.  Then imagine in September you arrive at ‘work’ - where you find a basketball court. Which will you play, football or basketball? The vast majority of us will play basketball. despite our football training, because that’s the game you play on a basketball court.  Paul summarized this nicely, “Structure allows for change, training allows for success”.

We were then joined by Michelle Spencer, NTH Principal, who shared more details of the school’s approach to curriculum, pedagogy and culture.  Michelle underscored how critical the school culture is as the ‘container’ for project based learning.  If students are trusted to run with this approach to their learning, the discipline problems are minimal as students own their behavior.  There are no bells or hall passes at NTH - “anything you can do to not make it look or sound like school”.  This is a significant culture shift for incoming freshmen, indeed the first six weeks of the academic year are devoted to learning the NTH culture; building trusting relationships and embodying the values of trust, respect and responsibility are more important than content in these first few weeks.  The time spent on culture pays huge dividends in terms of students’ ownership of their learning experience and learning environment. Michelle highlighted how students play an integral role in designing their learning and the school is always thinking “How many decisions can the kids be involved in?” The more involved students are in these decisions, the more “you will have winning players in their own learning.”

This became readily apparent when our tour guide, Austin, showed us around the school.  As a NTH student, Austin answered our questions regarding his experience of the curriculum and why he chose Napa New Tech.  I was struck by how reflective his answers were and how much pride he showed in his school.  He was clear and focused regarding his post-school course of study at college and the kind of career he hoped to shape thereafter.  I learned how students at NTH are working on three to four projects at any one point in time.  Not only does this build project management and prioritization skills, students learn how to master decision making, collaboration and team leadership. After four years at NTH, students have conducted over 150 projects - an incredible body of work upon which to build ‘what’s next’.

We wrapped up the tour with a lunch with several teachers.  It was great to learn more about their experience designing and facilitating the NTH curricular model.  The teachers underscored the importance of upfront work with collaborative project design compared with the traditional environment, and the pivotal role school culture plays in a healthy learning environment. Earlier Paul had mentioned how the de-professionalization of the teaching profession is a major problem in transforming our education system, it was great to see how at NTH, the passions of the teachers are fostered and supported.  Friday is teacher collaboration day where teachers collaborate in professional learning communities with data to discuss student learning - and teachers observe other teachers in their classroom, with substitute teachers being paid to allow for this peer professional development.

In closing comments, I asked Paul what the growth plans are for the New Tech Network.  He replied that they have 132 schools in the network and are adding 30 additional schools this summer.  The question which keeps Paul up at night is “How do we build 500 more New Tech schools and ensure fidelity to our values and pedagogy?” Paul’s question has stuck in my mind ever since.  I don’t have any silver bullet answers, but I do know it won’t be via our industrial age model of scale.