How do you create a socioeconomically and racially integrated school? Enrollment is the first challenge, but it doesn’t stop there.

High Tech High, a network of charter schools in California that is featured in our book A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, offers a strong example of how to create schools that are fully integrated—down to the classroom level—leading students of all backgrounds to success.

Starting an Integrated Charter School

Larry Rosenstock and Rob Riordan—the founders of High Tech High—previously had worked together in New England running a large public high school that enrolled a racially and socioeconomically diverse student body. Inside that school’s walls, however, students were divided among leveled academic tracks, which created highly segregated classrooms. As a whole, the school seemed integrated, but in practice, students spent most of their time in classes with students of similar backgrounds, and low-income students rarely had access to high-level courses.

So when Rosenstock and Riordan set out to start a new public school in San Diego, they were determined to create a fully integrated school.

High Tech High, the charter school network Rosenstock and Riordan started in 2000, uses a zip-code based lottery to enroll a diverse group of students from across the San Diego area, working around unfortunate residential segregation to create a socioeconomically and racially integrated student body.

But integration at High Tech High goes further than that. “It’s not just diversity in admissions,” Rosenstock explains. “It’s also integration in practice once [students have] arrived.”

Bringing Integration into the Classroom

At High Tech High, there are no leveled classes. Instead, the work of differentiating instruction to match students’ varied skill, knowledge, and understanding levels happens within a single classroom.

One way this happens is through project-based learning. In the video below, High Tech High art teacher Jeff Robin explains how teaching through projects allows students of different ability levels to work together while achieving the right level of challenge for all students.

“Project-based learning [PBL] is the quickest path to equity in the classroom,” Robin asserts. “PBL provides lots of different entry points that could require a wide range of talents, knowledge, and skills.”

For example, a project on leukemia might allow one student with sharp writing skills, one with a strong grasp of biology, and one with technological savvy to work together on an educational film. Done well, project-based learning plays to students strengths while challenging them at the same time.

Because of the collaborative nature of project-based learning, the model also encourages students to build social bonds with classmates from a wide range of backgrounds. “[Students] have a reason to be friends because they might be somebody’s partner in the next couple weeks, and you want to get to know each other,” Robin explained in an interview for A Smarter Charter.

Another way that High Tech High meets the needs of all students in integrated classrooms is through the network’s approach to honors classes. Instead of teaching honors-level curricula in separate classes, High Tech High gives students in the same class the option of selecting the honors syllabus. This model has the dual benefits of maintaining heterogeneous classrooms that bring together students of all abilities and making the decision to take an honors class accessible and attractive to more students.

According to Rosenstock, more than 70 percent of High Tech High students choose at least one honors syllabus.

Delivering Strong Student Outcomes

At High Tech High, personalized learning in integrated classrooms has delivered strong results for students:

  • Low-income students at High Tech High beat their low-income peers in their district and state on California’s Academic Performance Index, a measure of performance and growth based on state standardized tests.
  • High Tech High has a four-year graduation rate of 92 percent, 4 percentage points above the district average. And low-income students graduate at a similar rate, 89 percent, which puts them 5 percentage points above the average for low-income peers in the district.
  • An impressive 98 percent of High Tech High graduates go on to college—and about 35 percent of those are first-generation college students.

Much of the current focus on charter schools emphasizes serving niche populations—schools focused on the needs of low-income students or tailored for a particular immigrant community, for example. Advocates of these schools argue that disadvantaged students in particular benefit from schools built to cater to their specific needs.

But High Tech High offers a powerful counterexample of the way in which integrated schools can educate these students to high levels while also offering them the opportunity to learn alongside peers that reflect the full diversity of our society.

About the Smarter Charter Series

This series highlights ideas for promoting effective charter schools that empower teachers, integrate students, and share lessons with other schools. For more on these ideas, check out A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter.