High Tech High International’s common room resembles a downtown loft. Vaulted ceilings and oversized windows let in shimmering pools of light. On the second floor, a glass-walled classroom peeks out from behind a suspended walkway.
2855 Farragut Road, Point Loma
I try my best not to be seduced by the school’s modern design. It helps that I am shoved and elbowed by over-eager parents as we all attempt to fill out attendance sheets. We are documenting our appearance at this mandatory orientation meeting.
Hung on the wall to my right is an oversized rainbow flag featuring student photos and handwritten anti-bullying messages. My 14-year-old son, Andrew, reads them out loud to his younger brother, Jacob, as if he’s presenting a public service announcement to a live studio audience.
“Remember,” Andrew says, “always be yourself!” He pets Jacob on the head and continues in a sing-song voice. “Everyone is unique!” Jacob cracks up.
I shoot them a dirty look.
We are lucky to secure three seats near the stage — the room is so full that many prospective students and their parents stand in the back. When occupants begin to spill out the door, they’re encouraged to head upstairs to watch the presentation from the bridge overlooking the room.
I take a sip from my coffee tumbler, inwardly cursing High Tech’s administration for scheduling an orientation meeting at 8:30 on a Saturday morning. I shouldn’t be here in the first place. Andrew should be enrolled at Grossmont High School, which is near our home, not at a school all the way out in Point Loma.
Three years ago, while house-hunting, one of our stipulations was that the neighborhood had to have a good school district. That was why we bought in La Mesa. But last year the district rezoned, and our neighborhood high school is now Spring Valley’s Mount Miguel. It sounds pleasant, the name evoking postcard images, but in reality, the school sits across the road from the busy 125 freeway. Mount Miguel ranked two out of a possible ten on their 2011 California Academic Performance Index score, and 53 percent of their students are socioeconomically disadvantaged. Upon graduation, only 22 percent have completed the required courses for admittance to a California state college or university. In contrast, High Tech High ranks seven out of ten on the California Academic Index, with a score of 796.
At Greatschools.com, which is like Yelp for schools, there are 45 reviews for High Tech’s three Point Loma–based schools. The majority of the comments are negative. A review of High Tech Media Arts calls the school “smoke and mirrors,” while another parent says, “I was shocked to find out my daughter had to take remedial math, science, and English classes her first year at CSU after graduating with above a 3.5 GPA from High Tech Media Arts. When I contacted her counselor at CSU, I was told that “one percent of incoming students from [the school] demonstrated ‘college readiness.’”
Back at High Tech International, a curly-haired man on stage presses play on a remote control. We sit through a video featuring well-groomed, enthusiastic children operating expensive-looking robots in hands-on experiments to problem-solve. The video highlights High Tech’s teaching method: project-based learning rather than textbooks. My 12-year-old, Jacob, is enthralled, Andrew…not so much.
The film is followed by a Q&A. Most parents want to know how they can get their kid into the school.
“We have thousands of applicants,” the man on stage says into his microphone, “We have a little over 100 seats to fill for the upcoming freshman class.”
The room erupts in a communal sigh.
My 14-year-old yawns and stretches in his seat. “How long is this thing?” he wants to know. I shrug.
“This place is awesome,” Jacob whispers. “Can I go here, too?”
“It’s cool — I guess,” Andrew says. “If you’re into math and science.”
A man with a crew cut sitting a row ahead of us raises his hand. “I understand that the lottery is based on ethnicity,” he says in a dissatisfied tone. “So, basically, my kid’s chances of getting in are nonexistent.”
His blond-haired daughter slinks down in her seat.
There is a moment of awkward silence.
“I’m not sure where you heard that, sir,” says the man with the mic. “Our lottery is based on zip code. So, the fewer students enrolled from your zip code, the better your chances.”
A woman in the back chimes in, “Why does the school application ask if prospective students are eligible to receive free lunches?”
“Students who participate in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program receive a statistical advantage in the admissions lottery.” The man has answered this question quickly, hoping to move on to other questions.
A number of parents want to know how their gifted child’s talents will be fostered.
“It’s my understanding that [advanced placement] courses aren’t offered at High Tech,” says a bespectacled father in a Hawaiian shirt. “What if my kid is too advanced for freshman algebra? What then?”
A woman standing at the back of the room says, “My child is often bored at school from a lack of academic stimulation. Will High Tech challenge her?”
I can’t help but roll my eyes — we are apparently surrounded by geniuses.
After the Q&A, parents are encouraged to tour both the middle school and high school. Everything looks expensive. I remind myself not to be blinded by the bling.
On the car ride home I ask Andrew, “Do you like it there?”
He shrugs. “There’s no way I’ll get in. Did you see how many kids were there?”
He has a point.
On March 30, High Tech sends an email informing me that the lottery results are in. I click on the link. Andrew has been placed on the waitlist, along with 2380 other applicants.
“It wasn’t meant to be,” my husband says.
Now I start to panic.
When I was 14, my parents enrolled me at a private school named Nazareth Academy, Catholic College Preparatory High School. The news came as a surprise to me. I was supposed to attend the local public school with the rest of my friends.