At an inner-city high school in Chicago, 130 freshmen show up for class every day. They come from different parts of the city, different education levels and different financial situations.
Some spend two minutes walking to school. Others spend seven hours commuting back and forth.
Some read at a fourth-grade level. Others read at a ninth-grade level.
Some come from wealthy families. The majority come from poor families.
But they all go to the same school.
Because they want to learn.
They want to learn from technology leaders. They want to learn from teachers who care about them. They want to learn about stuff that really matters.
And that's how they're learning at the new Chicago Academy of Advanced Technology.
“The teachers are engaging, and most of our students really appreciate the opportunity that they’re getting by being in this school, particularly with the interactions that they have with industry leaders,” said Matt Hancock, the executive director of the Center for Polytechnical Education, which operates the academy under contract with Chicago Public Schools.
The academy just finished its first year, and it's already beat the Chicago Public Schools average attendance rate by 12 percent. An average of 96 percent of the students go to school every day.
These kids don't go to school in $10 million facilities or work with expensive equipment. But they do have the support of school staff, city leaders and more than 100 technology companies who invest in their education.
“This is a small, bootstrapped public school, and yet it’s the focus and involvement of private sector leaders that is really making the difference,” said Terry Howerton, co-chair of the school advisory council, chairman of the Illinois Technology Association and CEO of FastRoot.
Every week, industry leaders from small and large businesses interact with students during class. The biggest visitor they've had so far is Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who spent a day mentoring the students on June 10.
And frequently, students visit businesses to learn the skills they need to become industry leaders.
“We’re trying to help them think and develop an aptitude that is entrepreneurial, that embraces risk, that embraces the out-of-the box thinking, that is rich in analytical thinking, that is rich in communications," Howerton said. "These are skills that are necessary to be successful technology entrepreneurs, to be people who can literally change the industry, not skills or aptitudes that are necessary to just go be workers in some industry.”
Next year, each student will pair up with an industry member who will mentor them throughout high school. The mentorship program will build a professional network around them from the ground up, Hancock said. The mentors will also reinforce what's going on in the classroom, such as learning analytical thinking, reasoning, public speaking and study skills.
In the classroom, students can earn industry certification and learn specific skills such as web coding and programming. But the academy focuses on creating more choices and opportunities for them by teaching broader skills.
Technology changes so fast that if they focused on specific technology skills, their freshmen may not be able to use those skills when they graduate in 2013.
“We’re not treating a technology education as something that’s fundamentally about being a network technician, desktop support, database designer or programmer," Hancock said. "We think of a technology education as a component to those specific discrete skills. But fundamentally it’s about collaboration, it’s about problem-solving, it’s about being able to be a part of a team, understand the business process that you’re developing a solution for, and to be someone who’s a continuous learner.”
They learn by asking questions and discovering answers. They learn by solving problems and mastering skills. They learn by watching industry members and practicing what they see.
Brainstorming, organizing ideas and thinking critically seem basic, said technology coordinator and instructor Walid Johnson, but many students don't have those core skills.
“Sometimes children are so afraid to be wrong that they don’t want to take time to answer at all,” he said.
To help them overcome their fears and figure out the answer, he asks them questions like "based on the default HMTL code that you learned, what could possibly be missing?"
The students have to master a concept before they move on to the next one. If they don't do well on an exam, they should be happy because then they know what to work on, Johnson tells them. The students take a similar exam multiple times to understand their weaknesses.
When the kids understand what they're doing and why they're doing it, they don't trip over their stumbling blocks anymore, and they enjoy learning.
But despite inquiry-based learning and concept mastery techniques, only 40 percent of students received a B or better in every subject the first semester. Many kids have a failing grade in one or more classes, and that disappoints Hancock.
"We try to encourage the teachers to look at students’ success or failure as a success or failure in the teaching or the curriculum.”
We should make adjustments in real time based on how students are doing, but that's hard to do, he said. Next year, the teachers will focus on remediation as well as building study and inquiry skills into the curriculum earlier on.
The students have learned a lot this year between 8 a.m. and 3:32 p.m. every day. Now, 130 students know how to build a website, open up code and hard code at 14 years old. Many of the students who came into school at a fourth-grade reading level or fifth-grade math level may not be doing great in those areas, but they're teaching other students how to write code.
In their sophomore year, the students will start developing mobile and rich Internet applications.
They've surprised many industry members by how much they've learned in so little time. When the Microsoft CEO came to visit, four students gave presentations about how natural user interfaces could benefit doctor's offices and restaurants. They also talked about what they've learned and how they hope to apply it.
"We know how good our students are," Hancock said, "but they just blew everyone away."
The academy hopes to give these students the tools they need to fulfill their dreams. One young lady told her teachers that she wants to be the first person in her family to go to college, Johnson said. Her parents have worked hard her whole life to set her up to have a good life, and since the first day of school, she has relentlessly pursued her dream.
A lot of the kids here have the same dream. Many of them come from single family homes, and so the odds in many ways have been stacked against them.
But they keep fighting to learn.
"Where some students would cower and just give up, they see that opportunity," Johnson said, "and it’s that opportunity they see that drives them every day.”
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