From left: Alyssa Cebalios, Madison Madrid, Aaron Do and TyShawn Williams work together on their Renaissance history project. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)
From left: Alyssa Cebalios, Madison Madrid, Aaron Do and TyShawn Williams work together on their Renaissance history project. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)

Friday is a big day at Bulldog Tech, a public middle school in southeast San Jose. It’s finishing its first year as an entirely project-based learning school, a concept that’s got education reformers across the country buzzing. Bulldog is a small school with large ambition: prove that a public school can innovate as well as charter schools.

It’s no secret that a lot of teachers, principals, parents and kids are fed up with standardized testing. They think it relies too much on memorization and too little on problem-solving skills, deemed key to getting ahead in the global economy. Instead, they’d like to see schools inspire students to collaborate, communicate, create and direct their own learning.

Bulldog Tech classrooms don’t look like many public seventh grades (eighth grade will be added next year). There are no desks, no rows and no teacher at the front of the classroom. Instead, teams of students sit at tables all over the classroom, collaborating on presentation boards about a topic in Renaissance history, for example.

These kids have spent two weeks exploring a subject together, dividing up the work and holding one another accountable if a team member doesn’t do her part. Their teacher, Suzanne Zamora, got them going by designing a project around a few state standards. Project-based learning teaches students so much more than content, she said.

“We have content, of course, oral communication, written communication, technology, we even have aesthetics as one of our learning goals,” Zamora said. “And we grade them on all of those. So a project isn’t just all about content, it’s about all of these different components.”

Transitioning to this model was hard for students who had gone through six years of traditional elementary school.

“They weren’t really used to collaborating every single day,” Zamora said. “And they weren’t used to creating and learning through projects, rather than the project being at the end and more of the assessment.”

That’s a key part of Bulldog Tech and the project-based model. Projects aren’t an extra thing to do after a student has learned the content: They are the vehicle for learning.

It’s all new stuff for the Evergreen School District, which is spending almost $400,000 over four years to be part of a nationwide nonprofit consortium of schools called The New Tech Network. The money covers iPads, training for teachers and access to a robust online system that tracks work and grades.

New Tech Network, which was founded 15 years ago, is taking its schoolwide project-based model national. The organization, which offers a paid program for schools to use its model, began with a flagship school in Napa and has grown to 120 schools in 18 states, most of which are public schools.

The network has grown not only in size but also in reputation. President Obama visited Manor New Tech High School in Texas last month as part of an effort to promote an education agenda focused on producing graduates that can compete in today’s global economy.

Teachers at Bulldog are connected to other New Tech Network teachers around the country through the online system, so they can share lesson plans, project ideas and lessons learned. A big part of the New Tech service is providing each school with a coach. At Bulldog Tech, teachers transferred from other parts of the district and had never taught using project-based learning. The coach helped them understand how to craft effective projects, work together and build a culture of trust, respect and responsibility among the students.

Some Bulldog Tech student projects, ready for presentation to prospective sixth grade parents. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)
Some Bulldog Tech student projects, ready for presentation to prospective sixth grade parents. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)

Students at Bulldog Tech like the new model. They get to use technology like iPads in almost all their projects, and teachers even allow them to use their cell phones for work in class.

“I got to replicate a form of one of the Roman buildings called the Hagia Sophia in, I guess you can call it a video game, called Mindcraft,” explained 13-year-old Jasmine Le. She even designed a roller coaster so visitors to her building could get a 360-degree view – a little creative flare that distinguishes the model.

And more importantly, it’s the kind of memorable learning that defines this method.

“We want to cover the curriculum much deeper and to find all those little hidden things that can allow the child to connect it to other learning in their head,” said Bulldog site director Randy Hollenkamp. “And once they do that, it’s the kind of learning they never forget.”

But there are pitfalls. Project-based learning is time-consuming, and there are a lot of mandated state curricula to be covered. Hollenkamp said teachers can stumble if they don’t design a project that ensures students retain the right outcomes.

“Otherwise you could just give out worksheets and cover the curriculum much faster,” Hollenkamp said.

Math is particularly important on state tests, but Bulldog’s math teachers had trouble covering all the units this year. “The students have definitely learned to think critically for themselves and to problem-solve,” said Rosine Borello, a math teacher. When it came to testing, her students used their base knowledge to figure out things they’d never seen before, she said. That’s called transferring knowledge, or adapting it to a new situation, and it’s one of the skills employers say they are looking for in future hires.

Still, this is an expensive model and not one that’s likely to be doable throughout the district without a lot more state funding. As it stands now, Bulldog Tech is a magnet school, operating as a school-within-a-school on the larger LeyVa Middle School campus. More than half of LeyVa’s students qualify for free and reduced lunches, and Hollenkamp said Bulldog’s demographics mirror LeyVa’s.

Bulldog Tech students eat lunch at LeyVa, take PE there and have access to extracurricular activities like sports and school dances, too. That has caused a little friction.

“There’s a little jealousy, as far as why do they get all the money,” said Brian Conrad, a teacher at LeyVa, where teachers don’t get extra lesson planning time or iPads. Conrad and many of his colleagues understand the Bulldog Tech model needs more money to operate its model, but it raises equality questions. “Here we also need money at LeyVa. I mean, I get $1.85 per student in my budget,” he said.

It really is mostly a money problem. Some LeyVa teachers may be disgruntled, but they also see how project-based learning might benefit their classrooms down the road.
The district wants to keep students in the district by offering a model that rivals the many charters competing for students.

Bulldog Tech has given 50 tours of their site this year, many of which were San Jose public schools interested in seeing how it’s working. Eastside Union High School District, where Bulldog Tech students would go after completing 8th grade, is even looking at opening several New Tech high schools.

“There are a lot of educators out there hungry for this, because Common Core is pushing them, but also because it’s common sense,” Hollenkamp said.

The Common Core is a new set of educational standards California has adopted. It puts more emphasis on problem-solving and explaining the process behind answers. Along with the new standards will come a new state test, called Smarter Balanced Assessments, to measure those new skills.

“It’s very likely, as we’ve seen again and again, that the outcomes and achievement for these kids will not be captured by the existing tests,” said Brent Duckor, a professor of education at San Jose State University focusing on assessment.

The U.S. has a long history of education reform efforts, many of which have been undone by tests that don’t measure the “soft skills,” things like collaboration and creativity on which schools like Bulldog Tech are based. The Smarter Balanced Assessment might be no different.

“If we are going to measure something it’s going to take time and it’s going to take resources and effort,” Duckor said. “And what we’ve seen is a lot less attention on measuring those skills in any rigorous or reliable way.” As it is, some education experts estimate that Smarter Balanced Assessments will cost 20 times as much per student as current state tests.

Adaptability, communication and perseverance might not be measurable yet on state tests, but they are the skills employers say they’re looking for in future hires.

Listen to the radio story here:


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor