A Vision Realized: Atlanta’s Tech High Charter School

Published October 1, 2004

More than three years after the Georgia Public Policy Foundation (GPPF) first began laying the groundwork for an innovative math, science, and technology charter high school in the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) system, Tech High Charter School started its first classes in August with 150 Atlanta ninth-graders who had applied for admission on a first-come, first-served basis in June and attended a mandatory three-week preparatory summer math camp in July.

In an innovative partnership, Tech High occupies 17,000 square feet on the campus of Atlanta’s SciTrek museum. The hands-on science and technology museum for young people closed in August and is in the process of transitioning into a science education center to serve as a resource for teachers and students.

The critical need to develop local talent in science, math, and technology has long been a priority on the agenda of metro Atlanta’s business leaders. In the Atlanta Public Schools system, test scores show how great that need is:

  • Atlanta’s 2002-03 SAT scores averaged 862, compared with 980 for the state and 1016 for the nation;
  • 17 percent of Atlanta students failed the math portion of the High School Graduation Test, compared with 9 percent statewide; and
  • 43 percent of APS students failed the science portion, compared with 31 percent statewide.

It was no surprise, then, that the business and technology community leaped on board when GPPF proposed a charter school that would help bridge that yawning achievement gap.

Tech High, which will add a grade per year, follows on the heels of similar successful schools in Chicago, New York, and San Diego. The curriculum includes strong programs in math, science, and technology in addition to traditional academic coursework. Graduates will be prepared to pursue several different paths including college, technical school, or technology-focused employment. Tech High’s goal is to be the national model for the integration of academics and technical training needed to succeed in the new economy, and for the seamless integration of post-secondary instruction into the secondary setting.

Three years of intense planning for Tech High have produced a rigorous college prep curriculum integrating project-based learning. Real-world connections and experiences will involve internships and mentors. Math and science are taught in a double period by a teacher certified in both subjects. English and Social Studies teachers do likewise, and all students learn Spanish. “Ramp-up” programs will be offered, including summer camps for math and reading and Saturday and after-school programs. Acceleration will be available for all students.

While the school hopes its focus on accelerated math, science, and technology will draw Atlanta students motivated toward high achievement in those areas, it is reinforcing those higher expectations by becoming a leader in implementing the tougher standards of Georgia’s new curriculum, the Georgia Performance Standards, which are to be phased in statewide over seven years.

Graduation requirements include internship experience in the Upper Academy–11th and 12th grades–and earning the Triple Crown Diploma, which certifies that students:

  • have met state graduation requirements;
  • are ready for college as evidenced by the appropriate placement exam; and
  • have earned advanced academic or technical credentials.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to see our vision become reality,” said Kelly McCutchen, GPPF’s executive vice president and chairman of the charter school’s Governing Board. “The talents and ideas of so many committed colleagues and leaders went into this project; I’m honored to continue my involvement.”

An Atlanta resident, McCutchen has been involved since the school’s conceptualization. He said choice for Atlanta and Georgia’s students is fundamental to GPPF’s Education Initiative.

With developing leadership qualities in students a critical component of the charter school’s mission, a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program was included in the school’s plans from conception. Backing that up are clear expectations of parents and students, covering dress code, attendance, behavior, and a strong work ethic.

The school’s Governing Board–comprising parents, teachers, and business leaders–manages school operations. Tech High CEO Barbara Christmas will work closely with the Governing Board as well as with the Atlanta Public Schools, the Georgia Department of Education, business leaders, the Department of Technical and Adult Education, postsecondary institutions, and other state and local agencies. The school’s principal, Dr. Byron White, brings to the table career experience in the military, private sector, and public education.

“With the leadership of CEO Barbara Christmas and a very impressive faculty, the business and community role and a host of innovative ideas, there’s no question this will be a national model for public education,” said Governing Board member Craig Lesser, who also is director of Georgia’s Department of Economic Development.

Dr. Holly Robinson ([email protected]) is senior vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.