At New Technology High School in Sioux Falls, S.D., the key words are ‘projects’ and ‘groups’

August 1, 2017
Prairie Business

“Multiple pathways for student success.” That’s a common edu-jargon phrase. And in many districts, it might get bandied about at school-board meetings before it gets roundly ignored.

In many districts.

But not in the Sioux Falls, S.D., district, which not only talks about the multiple-pathways model but also practices what the board and administration preach.

In Sioux Falls, for example, four of the district’s 23 elementary schools are specialized schools. There’s a Spanish immersion school, a fine-arts immersion school, a Challenge Center school for high-ability students and a parent-involvement school.

At the latter, a parent or grandparent of each student agrees to spend half-a-day each week at the school. The visitors help in the classroom and provide academic support, district officials say.

Furthermore, “the Sioux Falls School District is charging ahead with plans to add computer science immersion programs to three elementary schools this fall,” the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported in March.

“Computer science immersion, a relatively new concept in K-12 education, adds computer science and coding activities to all areas of learning. … All three schools are Title 1 schools, meaning they have a high percentage of students from low-income families.”

Nor are the district’s efforts limited to grade schools. For example, one of the district’s most ambitious efforts got started in 2010. That was when the district supplemented its three traditional high schools by opening a very different school, New Technology High.

Projects and groups

Despite its name, New Tech isn’t a school for programmers or computer buffs, said Carter Pfitzer, a 2017 graduate and a speaker at this year’s graduation ceremony.

Nor does the school really center on technology, even though desktops, Chromebooks, laptops and iPads are widely available.

Instead, New Tech is a “project-based learning” school. In project-based learning, students spend less time in lectures and more time in groups, with each group getting tasked with solving a real-world problem.

“So instead of us writing an essay on the Civil War, we might have a project where we’d create an imaginary road trip through the South,” Pfitzer said in an interview.

“We’d have to decide what would be the important landmarks to see. We’d plan for the trip, we’d create the itinerary, then we’d make a presentation about it to the class. And in that way, we’d get really in-depth with the content.”

Here’s another New Tech project, this one described on a YouTube video by physics teacher Trey Erickson:

“The students are going to send a spaceship off to another planet using a Hohmann transfer orbit similar to the movie, ‘The Martian,’” Erickson said.

“And they’re going to make their spaceship have a centripetal acceleration that’ll match the acceleration due to gravity on the destination planet.”

New Tech students still get traditional grades, but the process is unique, said George Hawkins, who teaches U.S. history and American government.

“Our students get evaluated on their oral communication, their written communication, their collaborations and their ‘agency’ – their critical thinking and work ethic,” Hawkins said.

That’s 40 percent of the grade. The other 60 percent is content, and it gets measured through journals, worksheets, testing and presentations.

Especially presentations, because New Tech takes pride in graduating students who can work together in groups, solve problems as a team and speak confidently and authoritatively in public.

Professional behavior

When Hawkins was waiting in the school office to interview for his job, “a student walked up to him, shook his hand and asked what brought him to the school that day,” reads an anecdote at

“The student had nothing to do with the interview process, just happened to be in the office.

“Hawkins was so impressed by the student’s professional behavior, he jokes that he thought he had landed in the Twilight Zone.”

New Tech has no football team, no basketball team and no marching band. (Students can, if they wish, travel to one of Sioux Falls’ other high schools to take part in such activities.)

But if the New Tech students lack school spirit, it’s not showing up in their graduation rate, which is exceptional at 96 percent, said Brian Maher, Sioux Falls superintendent.

Likewise, although New Tech offers only two Advanced Placement classes, many students take college classes at Southeast Technical Institute, which is located in the same building.

The result is a striking education in a district that’s willing to take risks.

“I genuinely think New Tech has given me skills and talents that I’m going to need for my future,” Pfitzer said.

“From the beginning, it was, ‘Hey, we’re going to teach you the things we’re supposed to teach you in high school, but we’re also going to teach you how to be an effective person and worker in a business.

“I think that’s just super invaluable and amazing.”

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