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High Tech High School Pushes Hispanic Students to Become Top Achievers

August 22, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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A San Diego charter high school is aiming to close the education gaps between students of immigrant families and their counterparts by motivating them to acquire business and science skills and pursue college degrees. Paul Solman offers the latest in a series of reports on this education initiative.

DARRELL MCCLENDON: Where’s your transistor? Ooh, ooh, so how is that going to work when it’s in your hand and not on the board?

STUDENT: You can help me put it on.

DARRELL MCCLENDON: No, I think you already know how to do that. You told me how to do everything else on here.

PAUL SOLMAN, NewsHour Economics Correspondent: Engineering teacher Darrell McClendon won’t hold Josh Huezo’s hand, no matter how scared the ninth-grader is of failing. Huezo is a first-generation Mexican-American at High Tech High, a San Diego liberal arts charter school that aims to keep America atop the global economy.

DARRELL MCCLENDON: What is that called?

STUDENT: The emitter?

PAUL SOLMAN: Neither of Jose Huezo’s parents went to college. But every kid here does, even though admission is strictly by lottery.

DARRELL MCCLENDON: The emitter, where’s it going?

STUDENT: To the negative.

PAUL SOLMAN: Josh Huezo is learning self-confidence here and told us he plans to get a degree in business and run his own some day. High Tech High succeeds by organizing students into teams, having them work on projects. It’s education as discovery: keeping students engaged in order to keep America competitive in science in the global economy.

DARRELL MCCLENDON: Yes, so where does that go?

STUDENT: To the negatives.

A widening achievement gap

PAUL SOLMAN: But this school is taking on another competitive challenge, as well: getting immigrants into college, including San Diego's most numerous immigrants, Mexican-Americans. Economist Julian Betts.

JULIAN BETTS, University of California, San Diego: The gap in education between immigrants and natives used to be like this, and it's widened a lot since 1970. So in the short term, that is an issue. Our immigrants on average are going to be ready to participate in this high-tech economy that everyone is talking about.

PAUL SOLMAN: Economist Gordon Hanson.

GORDON HANSON, University of California, San Diego: If you compare the skills of immigrants to the skills of natives, we're accumulating lower and lower skilled foreign arrivals.

JULIAN BETTS: They're dropping out of high school, or, in the case of immigrants from Central America, from Mexico, it's not so much that they drop out of high school when they get here. It's that they never drop in. They arrive here at age 15 or 16, and they start working immediately.

PAUL SOLMAN: Mexican immigrants account for nearly half of all U.S. population growth, and yet less than one in 16 get college degrees compared to nearly one in 3 for Americans as a whole. Thus, the fear, that college grads as a fraction of the population, rising steadily for almost four centuries, may now turn down.

GENO FLORES, Deputy Superintendent, San Diego Unified School District: There's an achievement gap.

PAUL SOLMAN: Deputy Superintendent Geno Flores of the San Diego public schools.

GENO FLORES: Of the students who are Hispanic and who graduate from our high school, only about 25 percent of them are meeting the University of California entrance requirements.

PAUL SOLMAN: As compared to what percentage of everybody else?

GENO FLORES: As compared to whites that are close to 50 percent, and some sub-groups, including Asians, are over that.

PAUL SOLMAN: At the 2,600-student Franklin High School in East Los Angeles, a remedial math class taught by Evan Rushton, a Cal Tech grad who happens to be my nephew. The highest grade here is a C. Rushton loves the kids, thinks they're plenty smart, and that's the problem. Even the lowest achieving kids could presumably do the work. They just don't.

EVAN RUSHTON, Teacher: They come in late. They don't do their work on time. They don't do much of their work at all. You can see them giggling; they know it's true.

PAUL SOLMAN: You're laughing. Why are you laughing?

STUDENT: Because it's true.

Addressing the lack of motivation

PAUL SOLMAN: All but one of the kids here is Mexican-American. And, if estimates of the general population hold true, 5 percent to 10 percent of them are undocumented.

Does it matter a lot to you whether you go to college or not?

STUDENT: Not really.

PAUL SOLMAN: Not really. Why not?

STUDENT: I don't like school.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, of course, you could hear this in any high school, from almost any kids. But schooling usually translates into skills -- in an era where unskilled labor is at ever-increasing disadvantage. To their teacher, the problem is attitude.

EVAN RUSHTON: And at Franklin High School, at our school, if you look at the kids running around the track, they're walking. They walk their laps, come into class, they're walking through the problems. There's a lack of motivation in the environment. The school itself creates lackluster performance.

I don't know why that's the case. I'm in here racing around, but the kids don't follow me racing. Instead, they're just walking around, and doing a slow job, and not really pushing it, you know, not pushing me, so they're not pushing themselves.

PAUL SOLMAN: Is that fair?

IVETTE RAMON, Student: In some cases, you might have problems at home.

PAUL SOLMAN: Like what?

IVETTE RAMON: The family problems, friends, and situations where, like, that does not include school. So it might be that, that we might not pay that much attention to teachers, to problems, to tests.

Efforts to engage students

PAUL SOLMAN: Mexican-American Ernesto Caravantes, on the left, writes in his book "Clipping Their Own Wings" of the incompatibility of Latino culture with educational success.

ERNESTO CARAVANTES, Mexican-American Author: I don't think it's as important to them as other things: keeping their family together, maintaining ties back home with family in Mexico, visiting family in Mexico every year, maintaining cultural traditions.

PAUL SOLMAN: Not so, says Mexican-American Jose Moreno, a professor of education at Caravantes' alma mater, Cal State, Long Beach.

JOSE MORENO, California State University, Long Beach: Every survey that I've seen suggests that Mexican-Americans value education at an even higher rate than other ethnic groups that we consider to be groups that have succeeded.

PAUL SOLMAN: Moreno blames the high dropout rate on a history of bigotry and oppression and an inability of schools to understand Mexican-Americans, at least up until recently.

JOSE MORENO: A lot of parent education initiatives now are about bringing parents into schools to show them how teachers teach, because many of our families, be they immigrant or not, maybe have not graduated from high school.

PAUL SOLMAN: But whatever their differences, both agree that, given their history in this country, Mexicans are afraid to be looked down on, afraid to fail. And when told about High Tech High, Caravantes and Moreno were both enthusiastic.

ERNESTO CARAVANTES: I like that approach. I mean, it sounds like that's a school that is actively engaging the students.

JOSE MORENO: Yes, of course, that that's much better for kids, because it's not so much -- it's a much more interactive generation in that way, visually stimulating and collaborative in that sense, so absolutely.

PAUL SOLMAN: Engineering teacher Darrell McClendon says the key to the High Tech way is simple: given an accessible, hands-on goal, students can and will learn to do it themselves.

DARRELL MCCLENDON: Where's the negative at?

STUDENT: Somehow connected over there.

DARRELL MCCLENDON: My brother, you know how to do it. Finish it off. You can go sit down and finish it off, because you've got to do the same thing on the other side, too.

STUDENT: All right.

DARRELL MCCLENDON: All right, man. Sweet.

A call to expand education

PAUL SOLMAN: There are plenty of problems, of course. Though High Tech High is almost within walking distance of Mexico and the busiest border crossing in the world, it has a lower percentage of Mexican-American students -- 28 percent -- than the area it draws from -- 42 percent.

Larry Rosenstock, who founded and runs the school, concedes that's an issue.

LARRY ROSENSTOCK, CEO, High Tech High: A woman in Barrio Logan in San Diego who applies to this school eight months before September is different from her next-door neighbor who doesn't apply to the school. So, yes, there's a self-selection bias of who applies.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, Rosenstock points out, once he gets the kids into High Tech High, they're not tracked and they do go to college, every single one of them, no matter how scared they were of failing when they got here, because, the school believes, when you prod kids to accomplish, they're going to learn one of life's key lessons: Failure can be OK.

DARRELL MCCLENDON: Being incorrect with something is a learning experience, you know. The only time it's bad is if you don't learn anything from it.

PAUL SOLMAN: We assembled a group of High Tech High students and put the failure question to them.

STUDENT: The first time I was like, "Yes, how am I going to do this?"

STUDENT: And it was a disaster. I burned my partner with the chemicals.

MARCELO ALVAREZ, Student: I think one of the main things here at High Tech High that causes pressure might be presentations.

PAUL SOLMAN: But they get over it.

MARCELO ALVAREZ: I was shocked. I went up there like stuttering after every other word that I said. I was just, I stuttered, and...

PAUL SOLMAN: And they don't let it stop them.

Like this?

MARCELO ALVAREZ: Yes, like I am right now, exactly, yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: But failure isn't the end of the world.

ERIK LAND, Student: There's always somebody to help you up, you know. It's not like you're being humiliated or laughed at. It's a very, very great environment, you know, to fail in.

PAUL SOLMAN: Unlike other schools in America, it's never just sink or swim at High Tech High, because this place does collaboration like you've never seen.

STUDENT: We all kind of started over at the same time and helped each other trying to get it to work.

STUDENT: And which one is the negative here?

PAUL SOLMAN: Those who get it first share it with those that don't.

STUDENT: The negative side is supposed to be connected to the other side, right?

PAUL SOLMAN: So is High Tech High, then, an answer for American competitiveness in general and closing the Mexican-American achievement gap? Jose Moreno isn't so sure.

JOSE MORENO: But, actually, if we come up with a new intervention or way of doing education, then everyone will benefit from it, but it doesn't resolve the gap.

PAUL SOLMAN: School administrator Geno Flores, also a fan of High Tech High, has a more general answer to a gap that Caravantes, Moreno, and Flores himself have all so successfully closed.

GENO FLORES: I benefited from the Americans' investment in public education. The massive building of public schools, community colleges, colleges and universities that came out of the post-World War II era, I benefited from greatly.

We haven't seen that kind of expansion in education in the last 40 years. Here in California, we open up more prisons than we do colleges and universities.

PAUL SOLMAN: Suggesting that perhaps, were those priorities reversed, we might have more High Tech Highs and a bit less concern about America's competitive future.