When Montebello’s new $30 million, career-oriented high school opened its doors to more than 250 freshmen earlier this month, students were quickly told to shed their habit of waiting for teachers to tell them what to do.
For one, there are no bells to signal the beginning and end of a class or rest period – students must keep an eye on the clock and be ready for class at the scheduled time.
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In each classroom, students are also organized into groups and expected to give regular presentations to the entire class.
And when Applied Technology Center Principal Patricia Luckeroth-Lockhart makes one of her frequent stops into a classroom, she asks students if they know “why they’re learning what they’re learning.”
Not only are students expected to be able to answer this question confidently, they must also get used to addressing teachers and school administrators less as authority figures, and more as equals, Luckeroth-Lockhart says.
The school is organized around the idea of “project-based” learning, which involves a small amount of traditional teacher instruction and getting students to learn academic material in a group setting. It is the only school of its kind in the Montebello Unified School District, and represents a growing trend of schools seeking new ways to more directly engage students in their learning, in hopes of improving academic outcomes in a variety of areas beyond just test scores.
Students are expected to do well academically, but the school’s goal is to make sure when they graduate from high school and college, they also have a good understanding of how the professional world works, Luckeroth-Lockhart said.
At Applied Tech, when students are presented with their “project” assignments, they must first figure out what information they already know, and then determine what more they need to learn or research in order to complete the task at hand, according to teachers at the school.
In addition to getting graded on traditional academic subjects, the students will be evaluated according to seven additional grades that reflect their level of work ethic, ability to collaborate and work in a team, critical thinking skills, oral and written communication skills, and numeracy, the ability to use math and numbers in practical settings.
All skills that are valuable on the job, Luckeroth-Lockhart said.
According to Luckeroth-Lockhart, the Applied Technology Center is one of 70 schools across the nation using the teaching method developed by the New Tech Network, a nonprofit with roots in the Silicon Valley boom.
The nonprofit came into existence when a Napa, Calif. tech industry employer decided they were not able to find people they could hire straight out of school who could “jump right in and be problem solvers, and help us create,” Luckeroth-Lockhart said.
At a time in their lives when their social world reigns, most of the students said leaving their friends to become a part of Applied Technology Center’s first freshman class was a “big decision.”
Most of their day is consumed with academic subjects, with one elective in their chosen area of professional study, such as engineering, construction, healthcare, hospitality, or law and government services. Each student gets to pick a first choice and second choice career to focus on in the next four years.
Livan Valdivia, 14, said he chose law because he has a general interest in it, and because his brother had a bad experience with a lawyer who was working on his car accident case.
“Books bore me,” says 14-year old Felisa Duran, who wants to become a psychologist. So far she has not been bored at the Applied Technology Center where most coursework is done on the computer or in a social setting, she says.
Irais Herrera, 14, wants to become a famous architect and cites the influence of her elder sibling who encouraged her to take advantage of a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to attend a high school with a “college-like” atmosphere.
At full capacity, the school will have 720 students.