Central Coast New Tech High was a bustle of activity on a recent afternoon. In a freshman research and communications class at the high school in Nipomo, Caleb Sundberg searched online for photos to add to an exhibit about World War I.
Each team of students was assigned a country to research, and Sundberg was learning about France’s involvement, including some of the grisly details about diseases suffered during trench warfare.
“I like having a team to work with,” Sundberg, 14, said of the high school. “I like the concept of projects instead of just paper homework.”
New Tech High, which opened in August 2012 with about 100 ninth-grade students, remains an anomaly on the Central Coast. It focuses on project-based learning, with teams of students often tasked to solve realworld problems and present their results.
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“In project-based learning, the project is the vehicle for the learning,” Principal Dan Neff said. “Students have a lot of choices in their learning and how they want to show mastery of the learning.”
While it’s located on the Nipomo High School campus, New Tech High is a separate school in the Lucia Mar Unified School District. It has about 200 students and 13 teachers, and school administrators are adding a grade a year until it reaches about 425 students in the 2015-16 school year.
In general, enrollment is close to expected targets, and registration is now open to eighth-grade students for next year. Students from other school districts may apply.
Neff said about 10 students have left in the past two years to return to a traditional high school — some for transportation reasons, some to be with friends — but a few others have transferred to New Tech High from Arroyo Grande or Nipomo high schools after the school year began.
There have been challenges in starting a new school, Neff said, such as communicating its mission to the public and prospective students.
The school was planned while other Lucia Mar Unified schools were coping with the fallout from multiple rounds of budget cuts, and some teachers urged district board trustees to delay its opening and restore other programs instead.
District officials moved ahead with the school, however, saying they wanted to offer an innovative program that prepares students with “21st century skills,” such as communication, innovation, critical thinking and self-direction.
In a 2011 interview, district Superintendent Jim Hogeboom said New Tech’s student body should mirror the district’s student population. The school is geared toward “middle of the road kids” that succeed because New Tech engages them, he said.
The board stipulated that general fund money should not be used toward construction costs to start the school.
Neff is focused on adding facilities and teachers for the 2014-15 school year. He needs four additional classrooms, three teachers, a full-time resource specialist and half-time counselor to accommodate more students.
The school board will consider on Tuesday whether to add portable classrooms at a lower cost of $750,000, or a new modular building for about $1.6 million, with funding coming from developer fees.
Students learn in both types of classrooms. The portable classrooms are not as energy efficient as the modular building and don’t have the same life span — but they are less expensive.
The overall cost of the school’s operations is projected to increase next year to about $1.5 million from about $1 million this year.
The school ended up in the red by about $122,402 in its first year, with the district’s general fund making up the difference.
But it is projected to end this school year in the black, according to Raynee Daley, Lucia Mar’s assistant superintendent of business.
“We started out knowing the school would operate in the red initially,” Daley said. “When you start a school and start with one class, that small number of students doesn’t generate enough revenue to support the staffing associated with that.”
As for its image, some sophomores in a research and communications class may be able to help with that.
Michael Specchierla’s students are working on projects to define the school’s culture, its core values, and market its logo, the Dire Wolf.
Explained 16-year-old Beth Thompson, who was wearing a sweatshirt with the logo: “It’s basically that we need to take control of how we learn.”
Freshmen at Central Coast New Tech High will present exhibits during a World War I museum night Feb. 25. The free public event will run from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at 525 N. Thompson Road, Building 900, in Nipomo. For information, go to http://centralcoastnewtech.org/.
In addition, the Lucia Mar Foundation for Innovation, a nonprofit organization formed to support some of the South County district’s programs, will host a breakfast and school tour Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. For information, go to http://thefoundationforinnovation.org/; RSVP for the event by mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.