Case Study: Everyone’s a Partner at Clean Technologies Early College High School

Everyone’s a partner in reframing teaching and learning

Topics: Early College High School, Higher Education, Overcoming Challenges, Systems Change

More than 24 schools, 50 public and private community and higher education partners join to make collaborative learning a reality at Clean Technologies Early College High School in New York State.

Students at Clean Technologies Early College High School (Clean TECH) in New York State aren’t just taking tests, they’re testing themselves against real world experiences and expectations. With a focus on sustainability and other critical economic and workforce issues, Clean TECH prepares students for a world where new information and industries are growing rapidly by encouraging them to share ideas, solve problems and collaborate not only with their peers and teachers, but with local business and industry leaders, too.

“We’re not in the factory model of education anymore.”

Situated on Hudson Valley Community College’s (HVCC) idyllic TEC-SMART campus in Malta, New York, Clean TECH is a part of the Ballston Spa Central School District and boasts students from 24 different home high schools, more than 50 public and private community and higher education partners, and is partly sustained by an education fund that provides scholarships and enrichment programs to those enrolled. The mission behind Clean TECH drives everything that they do: access and equity for all, with clear pathways for students to fill serious skills gaps in the industry and technology-driven local economy.

by an education fund that provides scholarships and enrichment programs to those enrolled. The mission behind Clean TECH drives everything
that they do: access and equity for all, with clear pathways for students to fill serious skills gaps in the industry and technology-driven local economy.

Laurel Logan-King, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Assessment & Pupil Services at Ballston Spa Central School District, insists that open lines of communication between business, community, and education leaders have made the early college what it is today. When developing the pathways students can pursue – including courses of study in Clean Energy, Mechatronics, Computer Science & Information Systems, and Leadership, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship – Logan-King knew what questions to ask partners, and better still, knew when to listen.

“We asked, ‘What are you seeing in applicants? What are they missing? What are the trends? Where are the gaps?’” Logan-King says.

Those lines of communication are open to students, as well, who begin meeting with community and business leaders as early as the
9th grade to learn more about what opportunities are available to them at the school, and in the work force. Beginning in 11th grade, they also present their ideas to panels of professionals during quarterly student expositions, conducting research, practical trials, and putting together presentations that include every formality you would expect to see in a board room. Students benefit from the real-world, problem-based learning experiences, and local business and community partners benefit from helping to shape the individuals who will soon be active members of their community.

“We’re a part of the solution to brain drain,” insists Logan-King of the early college. “We want to keep these great minds here.”

Everything we’re being expected to do, I’ve already done

Clean TECH boasts graduation rates of 100%. Siena College in Albany, NY offers scholarships to students who matriculate directly from Clean TECH, or transfer to Siena after finishing their associate degree at HVCC. Graduates earn, on average, 22 college credit hours of the maximum 24 allowed for Smart Scholars Early College High School Program, one of the early college’s principal funders.

“We’re not in the factory model of education anymore,” says Diane Irwin, Clean TECH’s Early College High School Program Director. “It needs to look different. We need problems-based learning.”

Different is one word to describe Clean TECH. Unique, personalized, and innovative are others. 11th and 12th grade students spend the first half of their day on HVCC’s campus before returning to their home schools, oftentimes spending large portions of their time collaborating in small groups under the guidance of their instructors on the campus’ large, naturally-lit common area. You can see the coniferous forest that surrounds HVCC’s campus through the floor-to-ceiling windows. 11th and 12th grade students mentor younger students and visit work sites to network with professionals in the fields they are interested in pursuing careers in. From the Northeast New Jersey Beekeepers Association to Tesla, businesses and organizations are also frequently on campus, and Irwin says she and the early college take every advantage to connect students with visitors.

Jodi Onzo, a 12th grade student with plans to pursue sustainable construction management, speaks of the value in getting feedback not just from her teachers, but from her peers and industry professionals during the student expositions.

“Your teachers grade you, but you also get to see what actual business interests are. You’re not just appealing to one person,” says Onzo, who speaks of her appreciation for the teaching and learning style at the early college: rather than switching classes every hour when a bell rings, she gets to really dig into what she’s working on, incorporating lessons learned from many classes into a larger project that’s tailored to her interests.

The experience has taught her to manage her time, and to be a self-starter.

“I learned how to figure out things on my own rather than relying on my teacher,” says Onzo. “I’m proud for taking on this challenge, and I’m grateful to be graduating with so many college credits.”

Alumni communicate with Irwin and Logan-King on a regular basis, and one memorable email confirmed for Irwin that they’ve got it right at Clean TECH. “She said she was so ahead of the curve at college, that ‘everything we’re expected to do, I’ve already done,’” Irwin shares. “Another graduate who went on to work at one of our partner’s, GLOBALFOUNDRIES, told us that the skills they’re looking for – communication, collaboration, creativity – they’re finding those in our students.”

They learn from us, and we learn from them

“We’re part of the solution to brain drain. We want to keep these great minds here.”

Yang Lin, an 11th grade student who is part of a team of Clean TECH students who recently competed in the 2016 KidWind national challenge in New Orleans with a wind turbine he and the team designed and tested, knows that his education is something special.

“In a traditional high school they give you information and you just have to memorize it for a test, but here, it’s completely different,” says Lin. “You learn basic skills that you’ll need outside of school in the real world.”

Lin and his teammates speak of the opportunity to work collaboratively with peers, to learn to manage their time, and to present their ideas before industry professionals as all contributing not only to college and career readiness, but also their personal growth.

“We have to learn how to approach problems together,” says Lin. “We have to learn how to be leaders.”

Students aren’t the only ones who work collaboratively. Clean TECH’s instructors plan their lessons together during a common planning period every afternoon, which allows for an authentic level of cross-disciplinary learning throughout the school. And parents are brought into the conversation as often as possible.

“When we’re helping parents understand this model of teaching, we ask them to think about their work days,” says Theresa Lewis, who began teaching with the early college in 2012 after more than 20 years in a traditional English classroom.

“No parent does his or her job in siloed disciplines. We ask them to consider what they’re asked to do today, this week, this month, and how their work evolves. That’s how students are approaching problems here.”

In Lewis’ class, students may not be reading Shakespeare, but they are learning critical verbal and written communications skills whose application they might not have understood in a traditional high school setting. Anyone who has been to college or pursued a career can see the value in writing a press release, a research paper, or a proposal, and the administrators and teachers at Clean TECH don’t want their students to have to wait to learn to make those connections before it’s too late.

“For young people, this generation in particular, it helps them to be highly aware of how skills like these will make them career and college ready,” says Lewis, who goes on to describe how many students may need to unlearn typical high school behaviors to truly thrive at Clean TECH – and when they graduate into college. “It feels good to complete a worksheet or a quiz and hand it in and be done with it. But here, the first time they take a swing at something we say, ‘Great job, try it again.’ Our goal is that by the time they’re seniors, they resubmit something because that’s the model.”

And that goal extends beyond just Lewis’ classroom. It’s made possible by the collaboration and common planning between teachers, and the openness to student voice. Adrienne Snow, former principal at Ballston Spa High School and now Coordinator of Early College High School Programs at Clean TECH, cites this collaborative approach as one of the most valuable things that Clean TECH has to offer.

“I was used to seeing one teacher in a classroom, but here you have two or three. Everything is intertwined,” says Snow. “In a traditional high school government class, you might just sit back and listen. But here students take the public policy they’re learning and apply it to a nanotech project they’re working on. They look at what the impact would be; what’s the real world application? These are interdisciplinary skills they’re going to need, and a lot of kids don’t get those until their sophomore or junior year of college.”

Even before they arrive on campus in their junior year, 9th and 10th grade Clean TECH students participate in a summer bridge program, and receive monthly visits and communications from Clean TECH administrators to prepare them for the level of commitment, and the depth of the community, that awaits them. Ultimately, the opportunities available to Clean TECH students are invaluable: they take what they are learning and apply it to what they’re working on in authentic, meaningful ways; they bounce ideas off of each other, their teachers, and the professionals that are regularly invited onto campus; and they earn 50 percent of the degree requirements they need to finish out their program at HVCC – or credits they can easily transfer to the post-secondary program of their choice.

Coming fresh off of a recent exposition where they demonstrated their wind turbine in front of local industry leaders, Lin wouldn’t have his education any other way.

Facilitating the connection between those who are in the industry, and those who are coming up

“We have to learn how to approach problems together. We have to learn how to be leaders.”

Logan-King describes the partnership between the early college, their higher education partner, and local business as a “three-legged stool.” “They have to work in sync. They have to work together,” says Logan-King. “You have to make sure that what you’re doing is working not just for the school district, but for business, for industry. For everyone who’s involved.”

Among Clean TECH’s partners are CISCO, GE, Time Warner Cable’s Connect a Million Minds initiative, the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, and GLOBALFOUNDRIES, who attempted to hire graduate Morgan Pakatar but couldn’t, as she was only 17 at the time and the position required someone 18 years of age or older. As for all of the other qualifications? She had them.

“We’re all so passionate about the early college model,” says Logan-King. “We’re always thinking about how to make it a little bit better, to make it the best experience possible for the student. They don’t have to wait until they’re 25 to figure out what it is they want to do. They leave here at 18 years old with a plan.”

More about Smart Scholars

In 2009, the State University of New York (SUNY) partnered with KnowledgeWorks to implement early college across the state through the Smart Scholars Early College High School program. Funded initially by a $6M grant in 2010 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and expanded with matching state funding in 2011, there are now 20 Smart Scholars early colleges in New York State, 12 of which are partnered with SUNY schools. Smart Scholars graduate high school with an average of 20 but can earn up to 60 transferable college credits. The program is targeted to students who are traditionally underrepresented in postsecondary education, providing them with the academic supports they need to ensure they are at grade level and ready to participate in rigorous high school and college courses.

“Students are the number one beneficiaries of early college but they aren’t the only ones,” says Johanna Duncan-Poitier, Senior Vice Chancellor for Community Colleges and the Education Pipeline at SUNY. The “education pipeline” wasn’t even a topic of conversation before this program, insists Duncan-Poitier, citing the great strides Smart Scholars Early Colleges have made in ensuring more students graduate from high school and college prepared for the work force. 87 percent of 2014 Smart Scholars graduates did so on time, compared to 76 percent graduation rates in traditional high schools. And 87 percent of Smart Scholars enrolled in a post-secondary degree program.

“We don’t have to spend any more time exploring what works with high schools,” says Duncan-Poitier. “This works.”

Spotlight on Coaching

KnowledgeWorks coaching focuses on providing the supports needed to instructors to facilitate an early college culture within a comprehensive high school. For teachers, KnowledgeWorks provides instructional coaching on classroom management, expanding and deepening teaching strategies—especially in regards to literacy and numeracy. They also provide coaching around college collaboration, student assessment and how to provide academic and effective support for students.