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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.

High Tech High International

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.

Private School

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.

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Comments

nostalgic Sept. 12, 2013 @ 6:10 p.m.

Public school is the real world, but the education is right there to take, but YOU (parent/student) have to reach for it. I advise you to look at the requirements for UC admission right now. You will see the courses that are required. Voice of experience - Sr. in high school is a little too late. Then work with the school. We live across town from Southeast San Diego, but one of our children went to school there (on the bus), and it was a great education. You will be fine (and I'm sure he will be too). Your husband is right. And no, I don't work for the school district, and I was a worried parent too. Good luck!

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Joaquin_de_la_Mesa Sept. 13, 2013 @ 5:16 p.m.

Yes, Ms. Braun, your son will be fine at public high school... if you define "fine" as fully indoctrinated in a culture of diminished academic expectations and over-emphasis on athletic prowess and physical beauty; and if he's big/strong/confident enough to stand up to the strong-preying-on-weak bullying culture that exists in most schools.

Also, he must assent to the fact the Harvey Milk is as important a historical figure as George Washington and Martin Luther King, possibly more so. Because... you know... he was gay. Hooray for gay!

And he must realize that the pledge of allegiance is evil, because it mentions God. While we're on the the topic of God, your son must know that I heart Jesus shirts are strictly forbidden. I heart gay sex shirts, on the other hand, are strongly encouraged.

He must never mention the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, John, and Luke. However, he must memorize the Gospels of Global Warming, Evolution, Atheism, and Gay Rights. He must never refer to them as theories or agendas.

He must have some form of sex before he finished 9th grade. Otherwise he's a loser.

He must also assent to the fact that teachers' unions must be recognized as the sole authority on the subject of education. Never mind the dismal state of public education in CA brought about by said unions.

And he must get high test scores... because, after all, test scores are the point... not actual education.

Hooray for public high school!

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Yankeedoodle Sept. 14, 2013 @ 10:40 p.m.

Joaquin: Your sarcasm is not particularly amusing or edifying.

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Yankeedoodle Sept. 16, 2013 @ 12:54 p.m.

And of course that is your carefully considered and disinterested opinion?

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garedawg Sept. 13, 2013 @ 10:19 p.m.

Now I'm curious. Did her sister ever become filthy rich?

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Rebeccan Sept. 14, 2013 @ 4:52 p.m.

It's refreshing to read something even remotely critical of the charter movement (or at least an individual charter), as our local news sources do nothing but rah-rah them and gloss over facts. Although it was interesting to read about this family's journey, it was also a little disheartening to see that there was absolutely no thought given to what their role is in the "reform" fiasco. Every time someone sends their child to a charter school while saying they "support" public education, they should at least acknowledge that their choice is helping to bust teachers unions, defund the real public schools (and no, charters are NOT public, several courts have ruled so) and further the privatization agenda. There are some conservatives and corporatists who are just fine with that, but many others do not even seem to have the slightest understanding. They are so focused on finding a "magical school" that they don't think consider how these decisions aid in destabilizing neighborhoods, de-professionalizing teaching, de-funding schools that are barely scraping by -- and helping to re-segregate the system. Their teaching methods are often unproven, their facilities sub-par and not even subject to the Field Act -- and their scores overall are no better and even lower than the public schools the parents are trying to flee. While these decisions are complicated, it would be nice to know that the effect on the community and the participation in the privatization movement were at least part of the decision-making process.

2

Visduh Sept. 16, 2013 @ 7:49 p.m.

The things you point out are not present in all charter schools, but they do tend to describe many or most of them. A few actually have delivered on all the things we were promised in the early 90's when the concept was written into law. There are far too many interests out there that sill think the charter concept is the "great white hope" for school reform. But for every charter success story, there are a number of flops, scandals, and indifferent operations.

The whole notion was a counter to the voucher movement that gained great ground in the early 90's. That concept was smacked down, but at the same time an attempt was made to give the voucher folks half-a-loaf. That half was the charter concept. It was posited that if some schools could be freed from the minute dictates of the huge state education code, and no longer were stifled by a huge district bureaucracy that micromanaged the school, those schools would innovate, reinvent themselves and soar. Sadly, only a few of them did that. More often the chartering district washed its hands of the charter school and allowed the power structure free rein. The small volunteer advisory boards usually had no idea of how to actually run a school. The result was often to either hire the biggest talking phony to run it, or to contract the operation to some company that put most of the state-provided funding into its pocket while delivering little.

For the past thirty years parents have sought that magical school that delivers a wonderful education to a happy kid without any strain on anyone. Sadly, such schools don't exist in this state. Some charters bend the rules flagrantly about accepting all comers, managing to cherry pick the applicants for those who will succeed and make the school look good. The local school, especially the local high school, cannot do anything like that, and makes the best of the clientele it has.

The charter concept could work if everyone from the chartering district on down worked to insure that the promised education was delivered. But too often the schools are captured by a small coterie of parents and activists who want some things that should not be paid for with tax money.

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Joaquin_de_la_Mesa Sept. 16, 2013 @ 11:55 a.m.

Rebeccan, test scores are not an accurate reflection of the overall culture of any school.

That said, a quick search of River Valley charter discussed in Ms. Braun's article shows it to have a state academic performance index of 932 (out of 1000) and a 10/10 state rank.

By contrast, the nearest traditional public high school is El Capitan, which has an API of 742, and a state rank of 2/10.

Santana High School, the nearby venue for a famous school shooting, has an API of 842, and a state rank of 8/10.

El Cajon Valley has an API of 707, and a 1/10 ranking from the State.

West Hills, mentioned in the story, has an API of 807 and a state rank of 8/10.

Seems the charter experiment at River Valley is working.

*source: greatschools.org

0

Rebeccan Sept. 17, 2013 @ 3:38 p.m.

@ Joaquin_de_la_Mesa I agree that they have created an environment/school population that fosters good test scores.

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ReaderReader88 Sept. 18, 2013 @ 10:49 p.m.

Interesting how the author makes a joke about "Klantee" and then chooses to send her son to a school with a 1% black student population. I doubt there is a whiter school in all of San Diego. Guess she found what makes her comfortable.

0

DoingAok Sept. 28, 2013 @ 11:12 a.m.

My oldest daughter graduated from High Tech High International this past June and is now attending the University of Chicago, one of the top ten Universities in the world with an 8 percent acceptance rate. Point is… She was a student in the High Tech system for seven years.

I am completely against standardized testing in any way and wanted her to completely boycott and focus on the amazing colleges that do not require SAT, but she chose to take the SAT just once with zero test preparation. She did well enough to get into UChic with her entire education coming from HT. Not to mention her writing skills, internships from her Junior year and experience from her Senior project.

School is what you make of it just like life. A commendable skill!

For those extra interested in our experience: What I love about my Kids High Tech High Education… Diversity (ethnically, socioeconomically, religious), Vibrant teachers who want to be there, Junior month long internships (turned into a unique job for my daughter), Amazing projects that challenge my kids, Many opportunities to speak in front of large groups of people, Group projects that teach kids how to deal with difficult group members.

I really could go on and on, but I will leave it at that!

3

mom2boys Sept. 28, 2013 @ 5:32 p.m.

I am quite astonished at the inaccuracies in this article. ( Shame on you San Diego Reader.) Clearly, this is a case of sour grapes. The author spent an hour, maybe two, at an introductory meeting. She knows absolutely nothing about our school beyond the basics and is counting some reviews on Great Schools as fact. To say that only 1% is college ready is beyond ridiculous. After all the negative remarks she makes, she ends the article by being in a panic that her son didn't get in? After all the grousing, I am surprised she wanted her son to go to HTHI at all....unless, she didn't really believe what she later wrote in the above article.

Both my children loved HTHI. (BTW, My eldest scored very well on the SAT and is off to college, yes, a 4 year wonderful school, where is is majoring in the sciences. Is college hard? You bet. But, he is working hard, with a heavy load, and getting good grades. From what he tells me ALL the kids are learning how to make transitions in the first year in terms of time management, and balance. He can read, and so textbooks don't seem to be presenting a problem, he has organized study groups, and is involved with a myriad of activities from Student Government to being in a jazz ensemble. He found a love of learning, an ability to relate to his teachers, a keen interest in the world around him, and an amazing, diverse, group of friends at HTHI. He can also get up in front of a group and present with ease. Is HTHI perfect? No, never said it was, however, I don't think I could have asked for more.

3

Mlcbflew Sept. 28, 2013 @ 8 p.m.

I am also a parent of an HTHI graduate, who is currently attending college as a sophomore at Rhodes College in Memphis. Her 7 years in the High Tech system were an excellent preparation for college. After being a yearbook editor at HTHI, she is now a staff writer for her college newspaper; enjoying a rich college experience as a international studies/ political science major. The exceptional college student she is today is a credit to the incredible opportunities she was exposed to at HTHI. I write this while attending parents weekend; having had the opportunity to meet professors and attend class with her. The ironic part of this story is that she was initially NOT chosen in the middle school lottery, but was put on a waiting list! She transferred from a public middle school only when an unanticipated opening occurred . We were thrilled to accept on her behalf; believing that the project based education presented was best suited to her real world connections as an adult. We continue to count the many blessings of her High Tech Village education.

3

Juno1 Sept. 29, 2013 @ 3:47 p.m.

I also am a parent of both a graduate and current student at HTHI. While my boys are very different from each other, the school met, and continues to meet, their unique needs. Truly, for my older son the school was life changing, as a matter of fact, his college essay was about how much HTHI helped him evolve into the passionate, engaged, learner that he has become. Certainly, the project based environment, where there is less structure, is not for everyone...but it worked for him. As an example, when he was in the 11th grade he asked if he could sit in on the 12th grade calculus class while he did his art projects. He was welcomed to do it as long as the art got done. He spent the second semester in his junior year sitting at the back of the room on the floor during art class listening to a teacher who inspired him. Turns out that my son’s passion for neuroscience came from this teacher in this less than traditional way. In his senior year he spent his month internship at a world renowned lab where they are doing research on stem cells and Alzheimer’s. What an experience! ( He was, btw asked to come back and intern over the summer, which he did.) Talk about project based learning and real world connection at its best! He is now at a CSU, majoring in Biology, and he is struggling along with the rest of them!! In other words, he is doing just fine.

My other son is driven. His intellect and soul are being fed beautifully at HTHI. In 11th and 12th grade they are offered honors classes and he will be taking the AP test this year in history. In addition, they offer college classes in the 12th grade...visiting professors come in to teach and college credits given. The beauty of a project based environment, the sky is the limit as far as learning goes. This, is a key piece of the puzzle. These kids are expected to own, and be an active participant, in their education. Are there kids that do the absolute minimum and don’t really care? Yes, just like in any school. Although I have seen the HTH system work its magic on my eldest, it is not a magic pill. I think that is what some people expect it to be.

It is our responsibility, as parents, to be on top of things. HTH has always been very open about what gets covered, or not covered, in project based learning. What the kids learn, they learn in depth. But, it is impossible to ‘teach’ 548 pages of textbook information in a semester with project based learning - and so there will be holes. Here’s the thing, we all knew that going in. Anyone, parent or student, who is surprised simply wasn’t listening. If you want to fill in the holes it is up to you to supplement. For my family it is well worth it.

1

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