A tale of three charter school visits

Below are my observations and notes from 3 different charter school visits I’ve made over the past 3 months. The Community Roots school in Brooklyn, KIPP Infinity in Harlem and High Tech High in San Diego.  The notes for High Tech High are the most in depth because I spent the most time there and because they are so accustomed to sharing their story and having visitors. This blog post is nowhere near as polished as the work of many of these students – so I hope that you click through to see some of their exemplary work and don’t judge me too harshly formatting faux pas.


This is a collection of observations and some conclusions from a few charter schools I’ve been fortunate enough to visit. This is not, however, a comprehensive look at charter schools – in fact; it’s a very limited view. There are charter schools that are great and there are charter schools that stink. They come in many shapes and sizes.  Plus – while I’m using the term “charter schools, because I’m in a state where charters are not allowed, I also try to think of these schools, not so much as “charters”, but rather, as publicly funded schools with the same or better standards and more flexibility to do what they think will deliver better student outcomes.

Fundamentally, I am struck by a few key similarities between the schools:

  • There is a self-selection for these schools of parents who want more than they’d get through the default public school solution. In other words, recognizing the public schools in their neighborhoods are under-serving their children, the parents want more for their kids – or are willing to try this alternative (note – KIPP and High Tech High actively recruit in lower income communities for parents to enter their kids in the lottery)
  • KIPP and High Tech High are scaling their solutions and creating infrastructure around that scaled process. For example – both invest heavily and have very extensive professional development programs.
  • All three schools – but especially High Tech High and KIPP – recognize that the best teachers aren’t necessarily those that have been professional teachers/come out of traditional ed schools. In fact, High Tech High has several teachers who were in industry – including a VP from Motorola.
  • All of the schools actively share high expectations, not just high hopes, for the students’ futures.  They all expect their graduates to go on to college and excellent jobs. Granted, Community Roots is just K-5, so their approach is a bunch lighter on that front.

Additional observations and conclusions:

  • I spend a lot of time at work looking at how we can codify and then foster the teaching of 21st c skills. Thus – it’s terrific to hear these schools – especially High Tech High and Community Roots – focus on developing those skills in their students – especially through project based learning.  The students are learning and practicing collaboration, problem solving, creative thinking, communications, citizenship and (especially for High tech high) digital literacy.
  • Does a school called “High Tech High” mean that every kid has a keyboard attached to their fingers? No – on the contrary – students are getting out into the world and doing a lot that’s not necessarily “high tech”. The way that they use the technology is to edit, analyze, produce and share their work. It’s the means, not the end. In speaking with the students, it’s clear that the school has found a way to profoundly engage and motivate these digital natives who come from all sorts of backgrounds.
  • I was fortunate enough to also attend HTH’s exhibition evening where students across the High Schools show their work to the community. The most poignant moment for me was when I, unsuspectingly, sat down to watch a young woman’s video about her personal journey. She was a very well-put together young woman with her project surrounded with the remnants of college essays (all of the students in that event room were using paper cast offs from their college essays to frame their work). I didn’t realize that, about 4 minutes later, I’d be crying and in awe. This young woman had survived her drug-addict mother abandoning her and her 6 siblings in a hotel room, the disbursement to different foster homes and her personal migration to several different foster homes. And now, she’s looking forward to attending UCSD (hopefully) next fall. She – and the honesty in her video montage of her experiences – blew me away.
  • Other exhibits and/or projects are at the bottom of this blog – including items from the Media Arts gallery exhibit on Illuminated Mathematics (math + art).
  • As someone with children in two very different public schools, I couldn’t help but yearn for the approaches and freedoms I saw in these schools. I want the quality teachers, the teachers who learn from each other, the teachers who have the freedom to innovate with the students and who coach the kids to produce, not just consume.  I want schools where it’s not about the text book – it’s about the teacher!

Specific notes and observations:

Community Roots Charter School website: http://www.communityroots.org/index.php

  • Elementary school
  • School in Brooklyn co-located with a public school.
  • Basis for school is Inclusivity & Integrated learning
  • Team teaching – 2 teachers per classroom – 1 general ed, 1 special ed
  • Primary expenditure is into the staff, have relatively small infrastructure costs

Technology breakdown:

  • Smartboards per class
  • 4 Macs/class

Teachers and general support profile:

  • 2 Full time social workers and a full time speech pathologist
  • Also have an Inclusion coach and have an independent consulting firm doing collaboration workshops as well as coaching.
  • They also have a staff evaluator that they contract – she sets goals and assesses collaboration and such.
  • They work in teams for integrated studies
  • DRA is how they do reading assessment.
  • For integrated studies, they do backwards planning map. They worked with a consultant to develop it and incorporate different skill evaluations.
  • Grade level planning done collectively & have a child study team to foster observations
  • First names only
  • They focus heavily on being a great citizen. They also do family workshops (ie – on Internet Safety)

Budget thoughts/considerations:

  • They cover full staff costs, but don’t have to cover cafeteria overhead, building overhead.
  • Still get a per pupil allocation plus whatever the IEP supports. Average is $13,500 per student that they get. They’re free to use the $$s howver they want. The public school gets more per student, but, by the time overhead and salary is taken out, $4K is the discretionary budget for a public school principal.

KIPP Infinity – Middle and Elementary – http://www.kippinfinity.org/

A big focus is on raising the expectations of the students that they’ll go to college. Start college visits in the 7th grade & go for anywhere from 8-12 days. Each classroom has a theme of the college that the teacher in that room attended.

Philosophy and practice: http://www.kippinfinity.org/team-a-family/our-students on this site, it breaks out the demographic of the schools and shares out the principles to which each student agrees before they start


  • In class electronic whiteboards
  • 60 laptops currently for the school (310 kids in the school)
  • Using blogs in the classroom

Other observations:

  • They’re fostering an environment of teacher innovation & independence there
  • They have 5 pillars – but one of the main one is the power to lead
  • In K-1, there are co-teachers and then 1 teacher/pclass starting after that.
  • New teachers are observed weekly
  • There’s also school wide professional development but for the school summit that’s each summer – it’s up to the schools who gets to go. A new principal has a 6 week training.
  • For assessment – doing MAP assessment for K-8 w/K as a practice year. They do it 3x/year and use it as formative assessment.
  • They have four schools in NYC and are using Global Scholar between them. They’re creating their own platform to knit together national test scores & internal assessments.


Budget: 80% is people cost.

High Tech High: www.hightechhigh.org


  • We visited High Tech High, High Tech Middle and Explorer Elementary (that’s slightly different, but still a part of the chain).
  • No textbooks and no lockers
  • Explorer has a social, emotional approach.
  • Overall – going on 10 yrs now.
  • #s flow:
  • They do a reverse pyramid so that the students from the younger grades progress and contribute the knowledge of the system to the higher grades, but they expand the classes in that progression so that new students can enter and take advantage of it.
  • Explorer graduates 40-60 students, but goes into a middle school w/216 kids/grade and then goes into 450/grade in the high school.
  • Learn more about their structure here: http://www.hightechhigh.org/about/


  • They have many boards whose job is to do what they can do to protect teachers and directors


  • They started in 2000 w/just High the High as a charter school and 540 students total. Then they added Explorer Elementary, Middle school – and then the High Tech International and High Tech Media Arts (both middle and high schools). All of these are in one general campus area in Liberty Station San Diego.
  • The first school has its charter through San Diego Unified but the new charter is through the state and allows up to 40 schools. Their next set of schools are in Chula Vista. (note – Aspire also has a statewide charter)

Budget insight:

  • When they started, they received charter startup funds from the national charter fund of $450-500K. Also – received the buildings from the city (had been a naval training center) and then did capital campaign funding for the interior retro work. They did very low-cost construction inside (still have very exposed beams and very open spaces).
  • Otherwise – receive about the same per pupil as public schools

Design Principles – Here’s the full info: http://www.hightechhigh.org/about/design-principles.php) – and here’s a summary:

  • Personalization – students are well known and each has an advisory program. Each teacher teaches 50-55 kids/day
  • Common Intellectual Mission – they don’t group by academic ability (ie – no advanced placement). They have honors within the upper level classes – but it’s within the classroom. The ideas is that they are able to do their projects at their own pace.
  • Adult world connection – learn in context and w/in their lives. Lots of field trips and site visits. Biotech teacher partners w/navy. Shows a purpose behind learning. There’s also and 11th grade internship that’s full time for 3 weeks.
  • Teacher as designer – there are NO TEXTBOOKS. They have a lot of time for collaboration & consultation; they have their own teacher credentialing program so that they can hire people with deep content knowledge from industry. Also – they match teachers between different disciplines for them to work on projects with their students together. Ie – Math & Art; media arts and biology; etc…


  • Let the students produce – and exhibit/publish it to ensure they understand and pursue quality. Take a look at some of the books and projects: http://www.hightechhigh.org/projects/ Not about consumption – always producing.

The physical space:

  • While there are individual classrooms, there are also open spaces (like commons) in the middle of the grades’ classrooms. Big windows and lots of transparency for each classroom. Very cost effective construction. http://www.hightechhigh.org/about/facilities.php

Teaching concept they use starting in Elementary School – the Icons of Depth & Complexity –


Extraordinary to have the students gain familiarity with these concepts – to get them to consistently look for:

  • The Big Idea (I wish more adults could identify the big idea)
  • Details
  • Multiple Perspectives (Can you imagine a world where all children are able to understand multiple perspectives?)
  • Change over Time (whether it’s changes throughout a book or changes throughout ones’ life, this is a concept with which many of us still wrestle)
  • Patterns
  • Ethics
  • Trends
  • Rules
  • Unanswered Questions
  • Language of the Discipline
  • Etc…

College Bound: http://www.hightechhigh.org/about/results.php Their statistics for matriculation to college are extraordinary

  • In CA , only 34% of public school graduates meet the state college requirements. Therefore, HTH adjusted its requirements to map directly to the state college requirements.
  • 100% graduate and get accepted into college (w 80% to 4yr schools)
  • 85% graduate within 5 years w/40% in STEM (vs. 17% national average)

Speaking of College –

  • They have their own College of Education – where 80% is practicum. It is a credentialed College of Ed – and even has a distance component. http://gse.hightechhigh.org/

Cool classroom ideas/references/experiences and amazing student work that I saw:

  • FedEx days: 24 hours for a single project – the teacher interrupts whatever project/lesson the students have been working on and kicks off  a “FedEx project” – where the students will have 24 hours to deliver the specific thing within that project
  • Partnership with the Navy to do the Field Guide to San Diego Bay – Dr. Vavra (here’s his class’ website: http://hthbiotech.sdccte.org/)
  • The Klutz book of Brilliantly Ridiculous Inventions – in the elementary school – the kids are going to use this as an inspiration to invent solutions to things that are somewhat silly and unnecessary
  • Exploring nutrition – looked at nutrition bars and broke down the energy and fat components in the nutrition portion of the packaging, then designed their own bars – calculating the nutrition information for their unique bar – and then did the artwork and naming for their own bar. One pair of students even went through and created the bar.
  • Middle school students, to learn estimation, create posters of items with enormous numbers – all of which are estimations (image below)
  • 8th grade combines math & science to create a hovercraft
  • Former VP of Motorola teaching engineering – kids doing solar powered cars
  • In the Boys bathroom – they decided to do Urinal-art. Here’s an example
  • Jeffrobbins.com – is a great site to see a number of the projects that their art teacher has conducted over the years. A couple that we got to see firsthand (see the photos at the bottom)
    • Analog Flash for Windows – combined art and physics for the students to take a physics principle and turn it into a display window in the building – they also had to publish the equations that defined the piece. The test was that the students had to learn their fellow students’ equations/projects and get them all correct on the test.
    • Get Bent – a project bringing together art, physics, math, architecture and pop culture – students went to a couple of design shops to gain inspiration for chairs and lamps. They then went through and designed and built their own (in teams) – and created the marketing materials for their items. Amazing way to teach every 21st century skill
  • I got to attend the HTH Media Arts senior project on Math & Art.  See some of the examples at the bottom of this post.


  • They have extensive cloud usage – all students store all their work up in their digital portfolios <for example: http://www.hightechhigh.org/schools/HTH/?show=dp – is where you’ll find the ones for High Tech High – and here’s one student’s work: http://dp.hightechhigh.org/~aarteaga/ and another’s: http://dp.hightechhigh.org/~jlematty/. Just scan through these and you’ll be blown away.
  • 2:1 student: Laptop ratio. Plus – they have desktop stations throughout the common rooms. All interchangeable between the students.
  • Illuminate
  • Blurb.com and Lulu.com for book publishing
  • Google Sketchup
  • Windows XP (I sure wish they were using Windows 7)
  • Photoshop
  • Mac
  • Premier
  • After Effects

Other items:

  • Bare Bones – While there’s a rich educational basis, they save money (and space) by not having a cafeteria, no gym (and no equipment) and no teams (again – no costs incurred there). There are sports that parents/volunteers coordinate, but not with school funding.
  • No electives for which students sign up. Instead, students can choose an “X-Block” course with any of the teachers that they have in that period. These are up to the teachers – we watched a band group where they had singers, drummers, guitarists, etc…. get together to work on and perform popular songs (they did Hey Soul Sister among others). In Middle and High school – they don’t have Phys Ed – but some of the xblock classes are physical activities. Not required, though.
  • Explorer Elementary – a bit different than HTH schools – was a merger w/another school. Has a parent education program and focuses on the responsive classroom (no extrinsic rewards & punishments)

Student project highlights from High Tech High

(From the High School Exhibition) This high school project was created by students showing off physics. It could handle up to 2 people crossing at a time.

(Just in the commons area in the middle school) A middle school student created this estimation poster. I think my poodles have more hairs than this dog.

(At the Media Arts gallery exhibition on Illuminated Math) This project knocked me out. A student who loves baseball partnered with a student who is a photographer. They took images and calculated out arcs. Then – the infographic went into what happens in each of the milliseconds from pitch to plate.

This is one of the remaining windows from a project where students created physics project solving math equations.
Here are some of my other relevant education related blog posts.

Taking action on improving education in the US

Thinking about the school I want for my kids

A tour guide’s lesson about critical thinking and education

The physical space:

3 responses to “A tale of three charter school visits

  1. Gulen Charter Schools

    Charter schools are outsourcing of public schools and there is a deep gap in accountability. The gulen movement manages over 140 charter schools in the USA and migrates their teachers in from Turkey, they use their inner circle of friends for construction or ownerships of the schools whereas the rent/lease money goes to another country.
    this is an ugly tangled mess of Gulen NGOS and money grabbing in the billions.

  2. Dear Suzi, my name is Joyce. I really enjoyed reading your blog about your visits of charter schools. I’d like to get in touch with you. You may have heard of Adora and her work before. She has been invited to speak at High Tech High recently.
    I really like your twitter bio. We are all for making the concrete and positive impact. Thank you very much and I am looking forward to sharing ideas with you.

    Warm Regards,
    Joyce Svitak

  3. Pingback: YES on 1240, YES for Quality Education | Suzi's Political & Educational Observations and Experiences

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s