The trio of students huddle over a model that began as a gray slab of cardboard and now shows the beginnings of a miniature condominium complex, complete with parking lots, private garages and open-air spaces. The students are troubleshooting their latest problem: where to put the apartment building.
"We can't put it here because there isn't enough available square footage; it measures two centimeters short," explains Jos Bojorquez, 17, clutching one of three two-inch tall cardboard condo buildings that are part of the Lilliputian complex.
"It was such a great way of learning for me. Everything was hands-on. Everything had a purpose."
– Daniel Robles, 2007 graduate of
Construction Tech Academy in San Diego
It is architecture class at Construction Tech Academy, one of four small schools in the Kearny High Educational Complex in San Diego that has become a model for how academically challenging courses with a strong real-world focus can transform high school education in California. Students here are taking college-prep math, English and science, but they're also learning through a hands-on approach that is unlike most traditional high schools.
Instead of lectures and textbooks, for instance, these students are studying building design by measuring dimensions and meticulously crafting miniature models themselves. "We've had to think of everything from plumbing to the thickness of the windows, to how fast the elevators in the buildings can go," says Jos, a junior. "I never thought I'd be using this much math in architecture. But it's really cool."
His enthusiasm is not something you often see in a large public high school like Kearny, which serves a low-income, predominantly Latino community in the Linda Vista area north of downtown San Diego. And it explains why programs like this are the focus of growing interest and support from a diverse array of education stakeholders in California.
Known as "multiple pathways," the approach combines high-level academics with workplace learning and skills. It is based on the idea that high school students come to school with a variety of interests and learning styles, and that in order to engage them in challenging academic work, schools need to tap those interests and demonstrate the relevance of classroom learning to the real world.
In a sense, it is the 21st century version of vocational education. But where vocational ed was seen as limiting the educational potential for many students — leading to jobs but discouraging them from higher education — multiple pathways is designed to provide students with a path to both college and advanced careers.
"The goal is to have every student graduate prepared to pursue some kind of postsecondary education, whether they decide to go to college or not," says Arlene LaPlante, Director of the Network of Schools for ConnectEd: the California Center for College and Career, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that helps develop multiple pathways programs and advances the role that it plays in reforming California's high schools. The James Irvine Foundation established ConnectEd in 2006 with a $6 million grant.
ConnectEd supports 15 schools and academies around the state, including Construction Tech Academy, that serve as models of the multiple pathways approach. These programs are typically small, averaging 400 students or less, and each focuses on a specific industry — finance and business; health science and medical technology; building and environmental design; engineering; and arts, media, and entertainment.
At each program, the curriculum is designed to deliver the academic courses required for entry into the UC and CSU systems. But at the same time, these programs take hands-on learning to a new level.
At Construction Tech, students learn about mechanical engineering not just by studying a bike's gears, as they might in a more traditional high school; they build the bike, gears and all. Students learn about the physics of bridges not by studying textbooks and hearing lectures on bridge design, but by building a bridge; last year, they built a 20-foot-long, six-foot-wide structure over a creek in the Serra Mesa area of
"These schools are making learning relevant, engaging kids and contextualizing their learning," says LaPlante, who oversees ConnectEd's network of model programs. "When students are engaged, they are less likely to drop out of school and more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college."
Indeed, growing evidence shows that multiple pathways hold great promise for reducing dropout rates and increasing student achievement. A recent assessment of 2,113 students enrolled in eight ConnectEd-supported schools found that all of the seniors during the 2006-07 academic year graduated. Of those, 71 percent fulfilled the academic course requirements for UC and CSU, and most went off to college.
Moreover, students in ConnectEd-supported schools were equal to or outpacing their peers statewide on several standardized tests. In the 2006–07 school year, 82 percent of sophomores in ConnectEd schools passed the English/Language Arts section of the California High School Exit Exam, compared with 77 percent of sophomores statewide.
Recently, momentum has been building around the multiple pathways approach. In June, ConnectEd launched an alliance, called the Coalition for Multiple Pathways, to expand the number of
career-oriented high school programs in California. More than 60 education, industry and community organizations, including many stakeholders who don't always see eye to eye about how to improve California schools, have joined the coalition.
The hope is that multiple pathways can address the alarmingly high dropout rates in California high schools, where about a third of students never make it to graduation, and another third graduate unprepared for the demands of postsecondary education or the workplace. The multiple pathways approach offers a way to engage those students who often leave school because they see little link between what they're learning in the classroom and their aspirations in the real world.
At the School for Digital Media and Design (DMD), which is also part of the Kearny complex in San Diego, the front hall is covered with flyers (graphically designed by students, of course) of the schools each senior will attend.
Many go on to Mesa Community College while others attend San Diego State University, UC San Diego and a host of other state universities or private colleges. This year, one student, Linh-Da Ho, received the highly competitive Gates Millennium Scholarship, which will pay for her post-secondary career from college to a doctorate program.
"We've got really high achievers and we've got kids who never thought they would finish high school," says DMD Principal Cheryl Hibbeln. "But they all end up finishing and going on to some form of
Hibbeln says that the school emphasizes high academic standards. All students, she notes, must take a foreign language and intermediate algebra, and they can only take an elective once they have shown proficiency in math. "Our mission is to teach kids to be high-level thinkers and effective communicators. We want them to know how to argue, debate and articulate ideas," she says. "So, if theyre working on a video, film or graphic project, it needs to be the best written and understandable product, no exceptions."
As part of the field learning, DMD often requires students to present projects to real-world clients or professionals. In one graphics class, seniors worked on public service announcements for the San Diego city attorneys office. They researched ordinances on environmental issues, then wrote and designed brochures and posters on making San Diego a cleaner city by 2020, and, finally, pitched their ideas in groups before the city attorney and local business leaders.
"You learn that theres so much more to it than just putting together something pretty and slick on the computer," says junior Derrick Beebe. "You really have to think through things and know what you're talking about because the clients can tell. All of it prepares you for real life and for college work."
One of the most promising aspects of the multiple pathways approach is how it can re-engage academically struggling students. At Kearny, one of those students was Daniel Robles, who didnt have much hope of making it through high school, let alone getting to college. He barely finished middle school, leaving with a 1.3 grade point average (GPA).
"I wasnt interested in school. I was there because I had to be there," Robles recalls.
Robles decided to attend Construction Tech Academy, hoping he would find something interesting to do outside of his classes, something that appealed to his interest in building things. Instead, building things was an integral part of Robles' traditional classes. The hands-on learning helped Robles excel academically, turning his
1.3 GPA into a 3.5 GPA and above. He graduated in 2007 and is finishing his freshman year at UC San Diego, majoring in mechanical engineering.
"It was such a great way of learning for me," says Robles, 19. "Everything was hands-on. Everything had a purpose. It made me realize that you can't have one without the other. Even if I just wanted to be a carpenter, I really need to know mathematics and physics."