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Education—High Tech High gets down to business

Mandy Ross is only 15 years old and already she’s been through the most extensive interview of her young life , so far.

Ross arrived at the complex on the former Naval Training Center bright and early, portfolio in hand, ready to convince interviewers like Qualcomm Inc. executive Gary Jacobs, that she deserved one of the 200 slots that 1,000 other candidates were seeking.

But Ross wasn’t applying for a job at Qualcomm, or any other company, for that matter. She was applying for high school.

“It was six months after the interview that I knew I made it,” Ross said. “When I first noticed the school, I thought it was a good idea, but it’s even better than what I thought it would be.”

Ross and other students are attending a high school unlike any other in the country. That’s the point of High Tech High, San Diego’s newest tuition-free publicly funded charter school, which opened in a 40,000-square-foot facility in September.

Rather than learning in a traditional classroom setting, students study the fundamentals of math, science and engineering at personalized work stations and labs, similar to those at Qualcomm, Alliance Pharmaceutical Corp., and other organizations that make up San Diego’s high-tech and biotech cluster.

“We opened at the same cost per pupil as other schools, but we have a different philosophy,” said Larry Rosenstock, who heads the school. “We have work stations for everybody to do more independent work. It’s a more mature environment.

“We have a full skill level. (The students) were not selected based on their grades. They were selected based on their ability to convince us they wanted to come here.”

A class day at High Tech High begins with students checking in by scanning their fingerprint into a computer identification system.

Their next step will depend on which “block” they are assigned. Instead of running back and forth between six 50-minute classes, the students have one morning and one afternoon block.

Those in the “blue” block work on digital portfolios at work stations from 9 a.m. to noon, while those in the “yellow” block work on computer animation projects from 1 to 4 p.m.

“The motto in the animation lab is you can’t play computer games at High Tech High, but you can make them,” said ninth-grader Laurel Yianilos.

The current student body is made of freshmen and sophomores. One hundred slots will be added each year as those students advance to become juniors and seniors. The school will eventually have 600 students. Plans also call for a middle school across the street.

The school, officially called the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High, was created after San Diego technology leaders and educators discussed ways to solve a growing problem. According to Rosenstock, there are a large number of opportunities in engineering that exist here, but companies are having a hard time filling those positions.

With High Tech High, area businesses hope to build their own work force in San Diego.

“High Tech High is going to produce a much better prepared work force for the future technology jobs,” said Tom Oster, director of purchasing for Biocom, the local biotech community’s industry association. “San Diego has become not just a center for the wireless industry, but it has also become a center for biotech, electronics, telecommunications and the software industries.

“By providing an enhanced math and science curriculum, we feel that these students are going to be more prepared for what the future holds in terms of employment opportunities in San Diego.”

Along with math, history and English classes, students will take courses in telecommunications, biotech, biomedical and computer software areas.

Even the make-up of the faculty and staff at the school follows a different model.

Rosenstock, who would be a principal at a more traditional high school, is CEO of High Tech High. Next in line is John Shea, chief operating officer, or dean of students.

Some of the teachers were pulled from other schools, but others, like the engineer from Boeing, the bioscientist from Aurora Pharmaceuticals and a scientist from the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, were hired to prepare students for the future by providing a direct look into the industry. Salaries at the school start at $40,000 a year and can reach more than $60,000.

“When our students leave here we would like them to be curious, we would like them to be engaged and have a love for learning,” said Rosenstock, a lawyer, former teacher and nonprofit corporation president. “We would like them to be able to think well, to be able to use their hands well, and we would like them to be social and business entrepreneurs who can do things for the betterment of society.”

The school has caught the eyes of many since opening. Vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman dropped in a couple of weeks ago to attend a debate party, and California Gov. Gray Davis is on the guest list for the school’s opening reception Oct. 23.

The school has had visits from those interested in beginning similar programs. Officials from Georgia Tech in Atlanta recently visited the school, as did representatives from San Francisco.

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