New Technical West High School: Turning Challenges into Opportunities for Cleveland’s Students
Many schools in hard-hit economic areas, in both urban and rural settings, struggle just to graduate their students from high school, let alone implement innovative instructional models that develop students’ deeper learning skills, such as the ability to solve complex problems,collaborate, communicate, and direct their own learning. Despite numerous challenges, New Technical West High School (New Tech West) in Cleveland, Ohio, is doing precisely that by implementing an instructional model focused on research, analysis, and interdisciplinary inquiry that empowers students to personalize their learning and graduate from high school prepared for college and a career.
A District with Challenges
New Tech West is part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD), the second largest district in Ohio and one of the poorest—100 percent of the district’s students receive free or reduced-price lunch—and 85.4 percent are students of color, according to district statistics. The Economic Innovation Group declared Cleveland the “most economically distressed” city in America with 53 percent of adults unemployed, 36 percent of the population living in poverty, 23 percent of adults lacking a high school degree, and the city’s median income reaching only 54percent of the state average.
Despite these challenges, the district is making enormous efforts to improve the education of its students. Creating innovative learning models like the one at New Tech West is one way school district leaders are improving student learning.
Being Part of a Network
New Tech West is a member of the New Tech Network (the Network)—a national system of schools focused on improving education through innovative teaching. The Network works as an instruction design partner with school districts to build new education models “centered on project-based learning, a culture that empowers students and teachers, and integrated technology in the classroom,” according to the Network’s website. New Tech West’s membership in the Network is a key factor in understanding how New Tech West differs from other CMSD schools.
One of the goals of Network schools is to promote greater ownership of learning both by teachers and students. Students frequently work in teams, which allows enhanced interaction and collaboration among students, and they hold their classmates accountable for their contributions, creating an environment that resembles a workplace more than a traditional high school. Junior and senior students also can pursue internships in the community to learn more about various career options, allowing them to build their college and career readiness through real-world experiences.
Focusing on Project-Based Learning
Like other members of the Network, New Tech West emphasizes project-based learning (PBL), an instructional approach through which “students collaborate on meaningful projects that require critical thinking, creativity, and communication in order for them to answer challenging questions or solve complex problems,” according to the Network. The PBL approach allows schools to combine some subjects as students work on interdisciplinary projects over an extended period of time. New Tech West offers four such combined classes—three combined English language arts/social studies classes, and a combined physical science/algebra class—that the teachers from the respective disciplines coteach to provide students with a richer integrated education experience, according to a Network case study of New Tech West.
New Tech West integrates PBL into single-subject classes as well and students often work on the same project theme across multiple classes. For example, in one project, students examined the development and importance of cell phones from multiple angles. In social studies and world culture classes, students explored aspects of modern society that created a need for cell phone technology, societal impacts created by disparities in access to sufficient technology, and economic consequences of cell phones on communities and nations. Meanwhile, science classes examined the process and materials used to manufacture cell phones and the technology that makes cell phones function.
As part of their PBL course work, students have one-to-one computer access, allowing them to create presentations, build websites, and conduct research. By emphasizing PBL as the primary instructional method, New Tech West provides students with an engaging, rigorous, and relevant learning experience and produces technologically literate graduates ready for college and a career.
“One of the most compelling attributes of the [the Network’s] framework is that it engages students deeply and the fact that it uses technology,” Christine Fowler-Mack, chief of innovative schools and strategic design for CMSD, declared when the Alliance for Excellent Education featured New Tech West during the 2012 Digital Learning Day. The teachers at New Tech West think creatively about how best to use technology to give students more choice in their learning and offer them a more personalized experience, says Erin Frew, who served as the school’s principal from its opening in 2010 until 2016.
“Some students may love [the] mosaic nature of Prezi, while others like to stick with the more linear and familiar PowerPoint,” Frew writes in a blog for Knowledge Works. “By giving them the choice of what form they use to display their knowledge, they are [sic] get more excited about showing off what they know and less consumed by formatting issues or restrictions.”
Another unique feature of Network schools that facilitates personalized learning is an online learning management system (LMS) called Echo. Designed specifically to support PBL, Echo is available to students and teachers twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It connects students and teachers to “course resources, project plans, assignments, a multi-dimensional gradebook, online groups, and an extensive library of instructional resources for teachers” as well as project ideas teachers can customize to suit their students’ needs, according to the Network. Frew notes that Echo is an integral part of the personalized learning environment at New Tech West.
“Our mantra is that technology is the tool that we use to increase teacher effectiveness and efficiency in personalizing student’s education,” she continues in her Knowledge Works blog. “For example, we use online resources such as Study Island and Khan’s Academy to provide basic content knowledge at the appropriate level for a very diverse population of students, so that the teachers can concentrate on developing the higher-order thinking skills necessary for answering complex problems.”
Signs of Success
Much of the progress at New Tech West is driven by the school leadership and teachers who strive to make the school excellent despite challenges they face. “Most of our students arrive on our campus far behind where they need to be for ninth grade, but that doesn’t mean we can’t always be doing better for them and improving as a school,” says Frew. “We are constantly working to improve our instruction and student achievement levels to insure [sic] that when our students graduate from New Tech [West] we have done all we can to offer them the skills they will need to succeed in the future.”
Like the school district as a whole, New Tech West enrolls a high percentage of traditionally underserved students: 73 percent are students of color and all of the approximately 290 students come from economically distressed families, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Moreover, New Tech West has experienced frequent changes in its student population since the school has changed buildings three times in only seven years and still is looking for a permanent location. In addition to confronting the normal challenges associated with any move, such as teachers regularly packing and unpacking their classrooms, the school’s student demographics have changed as some students have transferred to other schools rather than travel to New Tech West’s new locations, creating a lack of consistency among the student body.
Despite turnovers in the student population and location changes, New Tech West continues to thrive, partly because of the school’s strong leadership and continuity among school personnel, according to a case study produced in 2016 by the Network. Frew has led the school since its inception and 85 percent of her original team remain at the school.
Although New Tech West students typically are performing below grade level when they enter the school, they make significant progress during their years at the school and ultimately surpass the district averages on a number of important academic indicators. In School Year (SY) 2014–15, New Tech West had a four-year high school graduation rate of 72.7 percent and a five-year high school graduation rate of 84 percent, compared to the districtwide four- and five-year high school graduation rates of 66.1 percent and 72.8 percent, respectively, according to the CMSD state report card.
New Tech West also is improving students’ academic achievement. The school’s reading and math scores are much higher than the district’s with 78.8 percent of New Tech West students reaching proficiency in reading and 65.2 percent reaching proficiency in math compared with 66.2 percent and 58.2 percent, respectively, for the district in SY 2014–15, according to district statistics.
Next Steps for New Tech West
During SY 2014–15, Ohio first administered the state’s next-generation assessment, known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). When New Tech West administrators and teachers received the school’s results, as well as student scores from that year’s ACT, they decided the scores, collectively, were too low and that New Tech West students needed more individual attention.
Beginning in the fall of SY 2016–17, New Tech West will implement additional strategies to personalize students’ learning. Through a digital survey, teachers will collect information from students about their interests and hobbies, academic strengths and weaknesses, and their short- and long-term goals for after high school graduation. Then they will identify individual learning goals for each student as part of that student’s personalized learning profile. The students will use these goals and profiles to track their learning so that they can monitor their own progress through lessons, giving students greater ownership of their education. The depth of student information provided through the learning goals and profiles combined with the Echo LMS will give students more opportunities to personalize their learning at New Tech West. Teachers, meanwhile, will be able to access this additional learning information and set targeted goals for each student based on subject area.
“We’ve struggled in the past to get students to use their own data in their learning,” Frew explains. “Our hope is these new growth plans will give students more ownership of their learning and ultimately improve outcomes.”
The Alliance for Excellent Education is a Washington, DC–based national policy and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all students, particularly those traditionally underserved, graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship. www.all4ed.org
© Alliance for Excellent Education, August 2016.