Two schools, one goal: Preparing kids for jobs

August 1, 2010

There are no books at New Tech High in Zion, Ill., no bells or bathroom passes. Students don’t sit in rows and teachers don’t lecture. There are no colored packets.

Everything students learn is connected to a group project about a real-world problem or question. They work with classmates, researching online. Teachers stay out of it until they’re needed.

“The first month or two was very difficult,” Principal Anne Buck said. “I’d have kids come up to me and say, ‘I want out of here.’ I’d say why? ‘Because it’s hard.’

“They’d say, ‘Just give me a packet, a colored packet.'”

On Monday, 106 Sioux Falls freshmen and six teachers will try to make the same model work in two oversized, computer-equipped classrooms inside Southeast Technical Institute.

The school is Sioux Falls New Technology High, one of 62 high schools in 14 states working with the New Tech Network to make learning more relevant to students.

It’s completely separate from the Career and Technical Academy, the hands-on trades and science school opening in a new building just down the street.

The New Tech model builds relationships between school and community through internships, job shadows and real-world projects.
To some, it’s what formal education ought to look like.

Principal Diana Messick left Whittier Middle School after 17 years to run the new high school. She’s drawn to the way projects tie learning to real-world applications.
What she found while touring a handful of New Tech schools were students moving about the room, engaged in their education. At one school, a class worked with an area mini-golf course owner who wanted to expand. The company judged the groups’ projects, and the students who performed the best were awarded summer internships.

“The more that we can bridge the gap between school and the real world,” she said, the more students will want to do the work. “I was amazed at the amount of engagement in learning.”

Sioux Falls New Technology High will be the only school of its kind within 500 miles. But the network of schools is growing, and so is the idea that students should learn through projects.

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