For 10 years, New Tech High School has used project-based learning (PBL) to prepare students for college and career. For three of those years, Roslyn Stradford has been at the helm of this unique school located inside Lone Hall on the campus of Arsenal Technical High School.
It’s one of several Choice programs at Tech. It’s also one of 126 such U.S. high schools in the New Tech Network. Based in California, the network has nearly 200 schools (elementary, middle and high) and 72,000 total students.
The attraction for many is that New Tech isn’t your typical school.
“New Tech is a college and career PBL program and what makes it unique is that everything that teachers do is project based,” said Stradford. “We do all of the teaching inside the PBL and we try to make connections to the students’ environment, the community and the world as a whole. The projects reflect this.
“When your kids come here, we develop their public speaking, leadership, computer and professional skills, as well as get them prepared for college and career. And we do that because the PBL has all of those components.”
Stradford isn’t just singing empty praises. Last year, 98 percent of New Tech students passed the Educational Credential Assessments (ECAs) and graduated from high school. Not one to rest on her laurels, Stradford is striving to improve that number this year.
“We are definitely a hidden gem within IPS, and we are successful,” she said.
Part of New Tech’s success is based on the PBL component. According to the New Tech Network website, PBL is contextual, creative and shared. Students collaborate on meaningful projects that require critical thinking, creativity and communication in order for them to answer challenging questions or solve complex problems. By making learning relevant to them in this way, students see a purpose for mastering state-required skills and content concepts.
Students (all 395) also have the option to choose how they want to present their projects — past choices have included iMovies, podcasts, documentaries and traditional papers — which helps to cater to different learning styles.
“Our teachers also don’t use books – unless they’re reading a novel or something like that. In terms of technology, we’re 1:1 on campus. Everything is through the projects and each project starts with a big question,” said Stradford. “Then we set them free to work as a group to answer that question.”
Students are choosing New Tech because of the project-based learning and are pleased with what they gain in the process.
Senior Julia M., 18, who has been at the school since her freshman year, said projects usually last two to three weeks (with the longest being a month). While that might sound like a lot of time to complete an assignment, students put a lot of work into each one.
Since being at New Tech, Julia has noticed improvement in her writing. “My writing skills have definitely improved. I can see that through school papers.”
Montserrat R., a 16-year-old junior, said her public speaking skills are better. “I wasn’t very good at talking and I wanted to experience New Tech and see if it would help me, and it has. I’m better able to talk more in person with people and present better. I’m also more confident when I speak.”
Stradford said being self-aware is one of the signs students are ready for college or career. “To really be college and career ready, students need to be able to look at and evaluate themselves and have it within to go in and tweak it and make it better, so they can go out and be successful.”
Julia, who aspires to be a professional chef, will attend Johnson & Wales University in North Carolina. Montserrat, who wants to become a corporate lawyer, plans to get degrees in business and law at Indiana University, Bloomington.
Both students are taking classes at Ivy Tech through a component of New Tech that allows juniors and seniors to earn college credits while in high school. Julia is taking a finite math class in the afternoons. Montserrat takes an English composition class in the mornings.
While New Tech has proven to be the right high school choice for Julia and Montserrat, it’s not an easy program. In addition to honor’s curriculum, the school also has ELL (English Language Learning) and inclusion. Because teaching is non-traditional, the rigorous academics and independence go hand-in-hand. Stradford understands that freedom might be too much for younger students, who often need a little more attention than upperclassmen.
“We scaffold, so when the freshmen come in we hold onto them a little tighter because you can’t just send a freshman across campus. In 10th grade, they get a little more freedom. But by their junior and senior year, we basically set them free,” said Stradford, who is usually seen every weekday walking the halls.
But she’s not just roaming. Stradford is known for greeting teachers and students each morning; prodding students to move a little faster to get to class or checking to see if they are dressed appropriately; or stopping into classrooms throughout the day to check on teachers and their needs.
“I’m like a bounty hunter, especially when it comes to my seniors. I’ll call them, check on them every day,” said Stradford, with a chuckle. Started her educational career in her home state of Ohio, continued at Manual High School and then taught at Shortridge (when it was a Law & Public Policy magnet) before taking the assistant principal job at New Tech.
Although exhausted at the end of each day, Stadford said New Tech is the perfect job for her.
“I work well with people and children, and I am a Mac geek (New Tech uses Apple products). That was one of the things that attracted me to the program, but also because I’ve been doing project-based teaching all of my life,” said Stradford. “The kids, my staff and my family keep me motivated. But especially the kids because what I’ve learned is that students are hungry (for knowledge), but you can’t just throw the food on the table and say eat it. It’s how you present it.
“And the teachers at New Tech want to teach and they want to do it well. And if you can help them and give them support, they’ll feed the kids all day long. You just have to figure out what it takes to feed that hunger and to get that kid to want to come back to the table every day.”
It appears that Stradford and her staff have found the answer through New Tech.