New Tech High raising some doubts

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how much money the Lucia Mar Foundation for Innovation hopes to raise this year to pay for planning costs associated with New Tech High. The Foundation expects to donate a total of $87,000.

Next fall, a new school is slated to open in the South County that would provide its students with college-level courses, internships, a digital portfolio of their work — and a drastically different way of learning than what is seen at most high schools today.

Lucia Mar Unified School District administrators plan to open New Tech High School next August with about 125 freshman, adding a class each year until it reaches 400 to 500 students by 2015.

District officials say the New Tech High model incorporates high-technology teaching methods — including ensuring each student has a computer — and “project-based learning” similar to Cal Poly’s “learn by doing” philosophy.

This method, administrators say, would spill over to other schools in the district, as teachers would have opportunities to get training and use similar methods in their classrooms.

But these plans concern some Lucia Mar teachers, who question how New Tech High would be financed, which students would be targeted for attendance and how it would affect staffing at the district’s other schools.

The school board approved New Tech High in April, moving forward its goals of promoting “21st century skills” in students, such as critical thinking, teamwork, self-direction and global awareness.

The board also approved an international baccalaureate program at Grover Beach Elementary, which would incorporate more technology, fine arts and Spanish into students’ curriculum.

To pay for both programs, the district is banking on a chunk of future funding coming from corporate sponsors and a new nonprofit organization, the Lucia Mar Foundation for Innovation.

During a well-attended school board meeting Tuesday night, teachers from various schools and a few parents made an impassioned plea to board members to delay New Tech’s opening and instead direct money to restore programs that have been slashed during several years of budget cuts.

“Is this really a time to be building a new school when it doesn’t seem we can support the schools we have?” asked Cathy Dahl-Kunkel, who has taught at Lopez High — the district’s continuation school — since 1975.

Over the past few years, teachers have seen arts and music programs cut or eliminated, library hours reduced, class sizes enlarged and less money available for basic supplies.

Raynee Daley, Lucia Mar’s assistant superintendent of business, plans to address some of the concerns raised by meeting with principals, auditing facilities and then compiling a list of projects for the board to prioritize. She also plans to discuss budgets with principals to hear their concerns about supply needs.

Once up and running, the new school would divert some funding; the money the district receives on a per-pupil basis would follow the students who attend New Tech High to support that program. By 2015-16, when the school is expected to have 500 students, that amount would equal about $2.6 million.

That could reduce the number of faculty at an existing school, though the district plans to hire five teachers for New Tech High’s first year from among existing teachers.

Superintendent Jim Hogeboom acknowledged teachers’ concerns even as he reiterated the district’s goal to open New Tech High next year.

“There has been a lot of pain,” he said. “Even if New Tech never got built — which it will — that’s not going to restore the programs that were cut.”

Offering an innovative program could attract new students to Lucia Mar and possibly discourage families who live in the district from seeking options such as charter schools, online academies or independent study programs, he said.

“It breaks my heart to hear and have seen the budget cuts this district and districts all over the country have faced,” added Beth Curran, president of the Foundation for Innovation. “The challenge philosophically is can we afford to wait to move forward? And I don’t believe we can.”

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

A closer look at the school and its funding

The school: New Tech High is a small-school program that focuses on preparing students with “21st century skills,” such as communication, innovation, critical thinking and self-direction. Students work in teams to solve problems or challenges, often using technology.

During their time in high school, students are required to complete an internship, college classes, community service and a senior project. There are 85 New Tech High schools nationwide, including seven in California. Dan Neff, principal at Branch Elementary, has been selected to lead Lucia Mar’s New Tech High.

The location: The school would be on the Nipomo High campus but would be an autonomous school with a separate entrance. In its first phase, the district would renovate three buildings into classrooms, including a digital media lab, and would buy a new modular building to accommodate three classrooms and restrooms.

The cost: Facilities costs for this first year are estimated at $2.5 million and would be financed with $2 million in developer fees — a form of tax on new construction — and $500,000 left over from a low-interest loan for projects at Arroyo Grande High School.

Raynee Daley, the district’s assistant superintendent of business, said Lucia Mar is not dipping into its general fund to open the school. Corporate donations and a new nonprofit organization, the Lucia Mar Foundation for Innovation, are expected to cover about $87,000 for curriculum development, including a $67,000 fee paid to New Tech Network, the organization that helps public high schools start the New Tech High model.

The students: New Tech’s student body should mirror the district’s student population, said Lucia Mar Superintendent Jim Hogeboom. The school is geared toward “middle of the road kids” who succeed because New Tech engages them, he said.

The school will accommodate 125 students its first year; if more than that are interested, the district will use a lottery to select students. Students may also be accepted from other districts, depending on the interest at Lucia Mar middle schools. All will be freshmen.

The Foundation for Innovation: The foundation formed to support programs that further 21st century skills. It is initially supporting New Tech High and an international baccalaureate program starting at Grover Beach Elementary, but hopes to support different programs throughout the Lucia Mar district, said President Beth Curran, whose twins attend Harloe Elementary. Learn more at http://thefoundationforinnovation.org.

Learn more: The district will host a community meeting tonight at 5:30 in Olympic Hall at Nipomo High School, 525 N. Thompson Road, to answer questions and share information about New Tech High. Interested parents can also get more information Oct. 24 at 6 p.m. at Paulding Middle School, 600 Crown Hill St. in Arroyo Grande.