Obama visit another boost for touted school

Manor’s New Tech High School has bucked national trends by sending virtually all of its predominantly low-income, minority students to college — a feat that has thrust it into the spotlight.

President Barack Obama’s visit to the campus Thursday is the biggest splash yet for a 6-year-old school that has become a flagship for project-based learning — using hands-on collaborative projects to teach core subjects. The approach is marked by heavy use of technology.

In the school’s 2011 graduating class, 97 percent of the students were accepted into college, and more than 50 percent were the first in their family to enroll.

“Manor certainly merits the presidential visit, I would say,” said Lydia Dobyns, president of the New Tech Network, a Napa, Calif.-based nonprofit with 120 schools in 18 states. Manor was the group’s first certified training site for project-based learning.

The shift to project-based learning at Manor New Tech High was made possible with more than $4 million in funding from the Texas Education Agency. The school also gets professional training and support from Educate Texas, a consortium that includes the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.

Over the past three years, more than 100 similar schools have been started across the nation, prodded by highly placed boosters such as the U.S. secretary of education and both foundations.

The same big windows at New Tech High that allow visitors such as Obama to peek in on classes make it easier for the students to watch one another, ask questions and collaborate.

Getting wired

Teachers at Manor New Tech have largely done away with traditional lecture-style teaching. Students move around the classroom freely and work with one another. Desks are round tables, rather than individual workstations that face the front of the classroom. Laptop computers, iPads and iPods are a big part of the program.

The model is being introduced to other schools in the Manor district through its Think Forward Institute for educators, launched in 2009. The program has master teachers trained in project-based learning teaching educators from across the country how to create data-driven projects. Since the program started, 200 Manor district employees have gone through the training, as have visitors from more than 30 schools and districts.

This year, the district added a two-day leadership program for administrators and campus principals desiring to start project-based learning in their schools, said the district’s academic coordinator, Chrysta Carlin.

The results have been clear at New Tech.

Since its opening, the school — where the student body is 86 percent minority and more than half of the students come from low-income families — has always met academic standards.

All 40 students in the school’s inaugural class graduated. That dropped to 97 percent in 2011 but grew to 100 percent in 2012.

Manor High School, where minorities make up 88 percent of the student body and 81 percent are from low-income families, has also seen some improvement, though just 87.2 percent of the seniors graduated from the school in 2011. The district has been working to train more teachers in project-based learning at the high school and has bolstered students’ use of technology. This school year, the district has handed out 4,000 iPads, one for every teacher and nearly every high school student.

Getting help

Manor New Tech’s success stems in part from millions in funding.

The district spent $2.5 million to renovate the former Manor High School annex to make way for the new school. The Texas Education Agency has pumped more than $4 million into the school through the $110 million Texas Science, Technology, Engineering and Math initiative funded by Educate Texas.

John Fitzpatrick, executive director of Educate Texas, which has worked with Manor since 2006, said New Tech is one of the better schools among the 65 STEM academies in the state.

“It is one of the strongest schools in terms of project-based learning and in terms of integrating technology into the classroom,” Fitzpatrick said. “They are exceeding their peer students in Manor and in the state. It’s a great school.”

The district also collaborates with the University of Texas. Students in the UTeach program spend time in a project-based instructional class and return to Manor for jobs after graduation. At the school, five of six math teachers, three of five science teachers and one of three engineering teachers are from UTeach.

Getting recognized

The school’s success has attracted national attention and helped project-based learning spread across the country.

In a 2010 speech, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called Manor New Tech “a model for reaching underserved youth.”

“In the 21st century, schools can’t be throwbacks to the state of education 50, 20 or even 10 years ago,” Duncan said. “The instructional content they provide, the learning experiences they offer, the teaching methods they employ and the assessments they use must all keep pace with this century.”

New Tech Network says project-based learning could be a viable and sustainable solution for public schools. While the network operates some charters, the vast majority of New Tech schools — 109 of the 120 campuses — are in-district schools like the one in Manor. The network — which says its students graduate at a rate 6 percent greater than the national average and enroll in college at a rate 9 percent greater than the national average — has grown exponentially in less than a decade. The network had just 16 schools in the 2006-07 school year.

After a visit to Manor New Tech, Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe’s workforce cabinet last year promised funding for nine New Tech schools. Arkansas now has 10 and will open five more next year.

In a news release about Obama’s plans to visit Manor New Tech, White House spokesman Josh Earnest recognized the school’s students for learning “real world skills” needed for jobs available right now.

Dobyns says she will be in Manor, too.

“For the work of thousands of teachers in the schools around our network, this feels like tremendous validation for what is really hard work,” she said.

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