While in San Diego for an International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC) Board meeting, I recently had the opportunity to visit two exemplary schools. Although Preuss School and High Tech High are very different from one another, as well as from St. George’s, they provided me with many valuable insights, enhancing my understanding of education in general and our own School in particular. Highlighting what we do well, these schools also helped to affirm the initiatives currently underway to make St. George’s an even better school for the benefit of its students, both current and future.
Located on the campus of the University of California, San Diego, The Preuss School is a publically-funded middle and high school “for low income students who strive to become the first in their families to graduate from college.” Recognized by Newsweek for three consecutive years as “the top transformative high school” in the United States, Preuss is a school where students benefit from a combination of high expectations and a strong sense of community. As Principal Scott Barton explained to me, at the core of Preuss is a strong advisory system through which a student is mentored by the same teacher for his or her entire time at the school. In addition to providing ongoing coaching and learning support, a student’s advisor functions as a personal counsellor and university counsellor. Visiting classes and interacting with Grade 12s, I was struck by the students’ commitment and levels of motivation, their self-confidence, and their well-developed social skills. As well, most of the learning I observed was collaborative in nature, with a strong focus on inquiry. Students at Preuss are incredibly diverse and come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but remarkably they all go on to pursue their studies at the post-secondary level, including some of the most competitive institutions in California and the United States.
High Tech High (HTH) proved to be very different. Founded in 2000 as a single charter high school, it has grown into “an integrated network of schools spanning K-12, housing a comprehensive teacher certification program and a new, innovative Graduate School of Education.” The defining characteristic of HTH is its commitment to project-based learning. Key organizing principles include personalization, adult-world connections, a common intellectual mission, and the teacher as designer. As Director Ben Daley noted, “We are teaching students to think deeply and about content and then do something with their knowledge, not to just race through a textbook.” “You can play video games at HTH,” I learned, “but only if you make them here.” When I asked Emily, my student ambassador, to describe a typical day at High Tech High, she looked at me quizzically and replied: “There is no such thing as a typical day; every day is different. Who would want to go to school if one day was exactly the same as another?” What impressed me most about the HTH were the high level of student engagement, the commitment to deeper learning, and the omnipresence of student work throughout the school.
As I reflected on these two extraordinary schools, several thoughts came to mind. Very different from St. George’s, they still have much to teach us about effective teaching and learning, as well as about the process of school renewal. The Preuss School reinforces the importance of having high expectations of our students while providing mentorship and support within a nurturing environment. We know that learning is highly relational and that positive relationships between teachers and students can have a powerful impact on the learning process. That is why we are continuously looking for ways of connecting to our students and of strengthening our sense of community through initiatives ranging from the enhancement of our advisory system through to our focus on student wellness. Our ideal is to be a school where every boy is known and loved.
High Tech High, on the other hand, highlights the importance of providing students with choice, of engaging them more directly in their learning, and of providing them with real-world connections. In keeping with what I observed at HTH, as we integrate inquiry and problem-based learning into our curricula, we are making it more relevant and engaging for our students. Indeed, new programs here at St. George’s such as Connect 10, the Grade 8 Cohort, and the Grade 7 Wonder Expo reflect the focus on inquiry and project-based learning that defines High Tech High, and the feedback we have received from students, teachers, and parents thus far indicates that our boys are benefitting from these innovative learning experiences.
Finally, reflecting on these recent school visits, I was left with a deep appreciation of what already works well at St. George’s. We aren’t going to abandon tried and true practices simply for the sake of innovation; nor do we wish to become a carbon copy of The Preuss School, High Tech High, or any other school for that matter. Our work will continue to be informed by educational research and by examples of best practice elsewhere, but it will remain true to who we are and our commitment, as articulated in the Strategic Plan, to a boy-centred approach to teaching and learning.
I welcome your comments and questions, and as always, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Tom Matthews