Integrating Academic and Vocational Learning at High Tech High
High Tech High School’s four academies provide students with a range of vocational majors, connecting them with real-world contexts and teaching 21st-century skills.
High Tech High's Vocational and Academic Model
High Tech High School, located in North Bergen, New Jersey, is a county-wide vocational school that combines high levels of academic rigor with a strong focus on vocational subjects. All students major in one of four academies: Performing Arts, Architecture and Engineering, Science, or Media Arts. The school's philosophy is that student interest drives learning, and much of the traditional academic content (math, English, social studies, science) works to enhance students' career and technical interests.
How It's Done
As Assistant Principal Allyson Krone explains:
As a county-wide public school, High Tech High School receives hundreds of applications for admission each year. Students apply for the specific academy that matches their interest, and the admissions criteria vary depending on academy. Students applying to Performing Arts audition for dance, drama, or musical theater. If they are interested in the Architecture and Engineering academy, they come for an interview. For science or technology, the school typically looks at their portfolio and their essay. Students are also selected based on the size and demographics of the towns in Hudson County to represent those populations accordingly. It's not always grades that drive selection, as students' interest in their vocational area is a major consideration. The idea is that student interest is the key to driving student learning.
Academies and Vocational Majors
At High Tech High, the school is built around four academies: Performing Arts, Architecture and Engineering, Science, and Media Arts. Each academy has several areas that students can major in. For example, within the Media Arts academy, the majors include film/video, broadcasting, or computer arts. For Performing Arts, a student could major in dance, musical theater, audio technology, or drama. In addition, all students take the required courses for high school students -- math, science, history, world languages, physical education, and English.
During their freshman year, students pick any four courses within their designated academy. For example, in the Media Arts Academy, a student samples four of the classes, which could be in film/video, broadcasting, computer applications, or graphic design. During the sophomore year, they continue to hone in on their major, and take two semester-long courses. In their junior and senior years, students commit to one major within the academy and take all the requirements for that major. Juniors are required to have 80 minutes of a major per day, and seniors are required to have 120 minutes of a major per day.
The majors at High Tech include:
- Music and Audio Tech
- Automotive Tech
- Studio Arts (Drawing, Painting, Sculpture)
- Musical Theatre
- TV Production
- Science and Science Research
- Culinary Arts
- Graphic Arts
Connections to the Real World and 21st-Century Skills
High Tech has put in place many structures to help students make connections and develop skills relevant to the real world. These include developing curriculum that is connected to vocational industries, giving students opportunities through internships, and valuing a diversity of experience from its staff. Above all, the school works to develop the key skills of problem solving, working in collaboration, researching, applying knowledge, and making those real-world connections.
Each academy has an advisory committee, which includes parents, students, alumni, teachers, and industry professionals. The committee meets three times a year and helps to shape its academy's vision. Much of this involves linking the curriculum to what students need to know in various industry areas. Industry partners often help the school understand the crucial skills and knowledge students will need to know by the time they graduate.
Teachers with Industry Skillsets
Many of the teachers at High Tech come from varying backgrounds, often with a vast amount of connections to the industry and professional fields they are teaching in. They bring in guest speakers, take students on field trips, set up internships, and bring their own knowledge and expertise from these professional and vocational areas. For example, one of the musical theater teachers composes Broadway show music; the science teacher has extensive research experience in various companies' labs; the architecture teacher brings his students to New York City for a day-long exploration of architecture; and the dance teacher has guest choreographers come into her class. Teachers often talk about their own industry experience and what the day-to-day of a professional in the field looks like from the inside.
Starting in their freshman year, all students at High Tech High have unscheduled free periods. The school believes that encouraging students to take ownership of their time needs to start early on. They must become responsible for their own learning, including how they spend their time. During that unscheduled period, students might seek out extra help, work on a project together, or even socialize with their friends. Being a county school, students live in different towns, which makes these unscheduled periods valuable for socializing or collaborating. This is part of taking responsibility for their learning.
Students can also participate in internships to enhance their learning. Internships range from assisting a teacher for a few hours a week in school to long-term internships at companies and organizations throughout Hudson County. These internships relate to students' vocational areas, and they get academic credit for their hours.
Integration Across Vocational and Academic Areas
The school encourages vocational and academic teachers to collaborate and integrate as they can. Sometimes this is done across the grade level, so that the 11th grade math teacher is working with the 11th grade dance teacher. Sometimes it's done with a whole cohort of teachers working within a grade level. Teachers meet during common planning times or before and after school. They also have a summer planning sessions that allow them to explore new ideas or build themes across classes and disciplines.
Much of the collaboration is focused around a particular theme and culminates in a specific project that students create. Projects are used to make connections and show relevancy. Usually the vocational teacher will lead the project, and the academic teachers find ways to fit in and integrate their content. Projects can last anywhere from two weeks to a whole semester. The idea is to collaborate and find ways to work together so that students can view and engage material from multiple perspectives.