New Tech High celebrates, reflects on 20 years

February 1, 2017
Napa Valley Register

New Technology High School is now 20 years old, giving education and business leaders reason to gather last week to celebrate and reflect on the groundbreaking school’s work and the model of education it has fostered across the country.

The event brought the innovators and pioneers who helped launch New Tech High back to campus, where they mingled with current staff, students and parents to talk about the school’s growth and the movement it spawned in American education.

The creation of New Tech High led to the birth of the New Tech Network, which has been spreading the learning and teaching model crafted in Napa just off Main Street in a converted elementary school since the mid-1990s.

Today, there are nearly 200 New Tech schools in the United States, including 12 in Napa Valley, and even a few in Australia. They all use Project Based Learning, the cornerstone of education at New Tech High.

But the success of New Tech High is about more than having students work on projects, according to past and present school principals and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was instrumental in starting things up.

“When the school started in 1996, it was a long shot,” said Principal Riley Johnson, who’s in his second year leading New Tech High. “People didn’t know what to expect. It had never been done before.”

The school succeeded in part, Riley said, because “it has been agile” and has never shied away from change in order to keep up with the rest of the world.

“That’s kept us innovative and fresh in our approach, and always with a willingness to try new things,” said Riley. “That’s been really positive on the footprint here.”

Everything was new when New Tech High opened its doors in the 1996-1997 school year, particularly its way of educating students. The Napa Valley Unified School District and local business people wanted something more than teachers standing up in front of a classroom and lecturing and giving out assignments from textbooks.

“The leaders in Napa envisioned a school that would create a different learning environment and outcomes for students that would make them more competitive in the 21st century,” said Mark Morrison, the school’s first principal for nine years.

Only “there was no model for that,” said Morrison, who now serves as NVUSD’s executive director of secondary education.

Morrison and his small crew — six teachers and three staff members — had to figure out how to develop the PBL model, which had not been used in Napa up to that point. They also had to build a technology network for the school of 200 students, at a time when such things were non-existent in most schools.

“The design was complicated,” said Morrison. “We really had to lean towards the business community to help us. How do you manage a network where every student has an email account — in 1996. That was unheard of [then]. Adults were just starting to get into email.”

Morrison said the classroom wasn’t a place of learning just for students, but for the faculty, too, as they embraced PBL and a new culture of educating. In those early years, he said, he and his staff often remarked, “The answers are in the room,” meaning the classroom.

“There weren’t places to go to get the answers,” said Morrison, “so we had to look to each other for them” and “to business partners to think through the complexities of the problem of the day.”

A key business partner in the New Tech High venture was Ted Fujimoto, founder and president of Landmark Consulting Group.

Fujimoto, who grew up in Napa Valley, came back in the early 90s with his company, which has always focused on helping industries learn, from education to media to entertainment to technology and more.

But the entrepreneur soon realized after moving his business into the Gateway development near the Napa County Airport that the local workforce was lacking in the skills required for Landmark Consulting.

“We couldn’t even hire admin assistants with the skills that were needed,” said Fujimoto. It was so bad, he said, “We were thinking that within a year, we’d have to move again, perhaps Sacramento, to thrive.”

 Instead of moving, Fujimoto started talking to education leaders and members of the school board about the need to graduate a new kind of student — one who could work successfully in teams, think on their feet, and know how to find or create solutions where none existed.

“The stuff you do know — who cares,” said Fujimoto. “It’s more of what you don’t know and how you unpack that. That’s where progress is made.”

His company provided ideas for New Tech High’s pedagogy as well as information and technology for the startup school.

“We literally copied entire protocols and our server, which was based on Lotus Notes then, and dumped them into the school” and its technology infrastructure, said Fujimoto.

When Fujimoto, Morrison and others visited New Tech High last Friday during a morning long Open House, they got to meet many of its current student body. Stations were set up in the school’s main hall where students talked about their projects.

Johnson noted that New Tech High strives to make its student projects “relevant” so they never become out of date and stale.

This attribute was on display while sophomores Stephanie Sabre, Dina Shichkova and Daria Burback talked about their research and ideas after studying the Syar-Skyline Park controversy.

The three students were among New Tech High’s freshmen last year who delved into the environmental and business concerns of the ongoing local land use issue.

Sabre said she thoroughly enjoyed the project, which “snowballed into so much more” for her than just another class assignment.

She said it was “an amazing feeling” to work on something that could impact the local environment, particularly since Syar, she was told, had looked at the students’ proposals for solving the issue.

Among the solutions crafted in the students’ projects was crafting a “natural barrier” of trees and bushes to separate the expanded quarry from the park, according to Shichkova. She said her work included the challenge of figuring out a water supply for maintaining the barrier.

Burback said she focused on local species that might be impacted by a larger quarry. One such animal was bats, she said, which might end up migrating from the region due to noise pollution coming from heavy machinery.

Each of the students presented their work to visitors attending the Open House, demonstrating one of the hallmarks of a New Tech High education, said Fujimoto.

“By the time a student graduates from here, they have given more public presentations than most adults have in their careers,” he said.

Presentations are just one of many key learning experiences at the school, where personalizing education is heralded.

“It’s not just having projects at schools,” said Fujimoto, but the importance of being “flexible” to allow kids to explore their own interests and find what motivates them so they have a path for their future.

Principal Johnson said the 20th Anniversary celebration was a chance to look back and to connect with the present so New Tech High can chart another two decades of success.

“This past week we’ve reflected about the past 20 years,” he said. “Where we started, the journey along the way” and “to set the edge for the next 20 years and see what the future of New Tech High looks like.”

Early NTN supporters gathered to celebrate 20 years of New Tech

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