Eastern Tech evolves from a traditional vocational school

In planning a high school redesign, the first question to ask is, “What qualities should graduating seniors have so they can succeed in both higher education and the world of work?” In the summer of 2015-16, with the arrival of a new principal, Eastern Technical High School in Baltimore reconfigured its leadership team and charged members to answer that question using the XQ Super School model for rethinking the American high school (www.xqsuperschool.org).

To be prepared for a world fraught with challenges, the XQ Project argues that students should be “masters of all fundamental literacies, holders of foundational knowledge, original thinkers for an uncertain world, learners for life, and generous collaborators for tough problems.” After carefully analyzing the student body, community, and current school climate, our leadership team created K.A.D.I. and C.O.L.E.-ideal female and male students who together represent the school’s widely diverse student population and symbolize the school’s goals for all students. Their names are acronyms for what our school considers critical skills for the 21st century. K.A.D.I. stands for Knowledgeable, Articulate, Dedicated, and Inspiring. C.O.L.E. represents Creative, Organized, Logical, and Engaging.

The Mission 

Recognizing the school was poised to attain national recognition as a model for the 21st century, Principal C. Michelle Anderson immediately engaged the school’s stakeholders to rewrite the school’s mission and vision statements. The new mission statement reads: “The Eastern Technical High School community will build and inspire lifelong, 21st-century learners who have the mindset and tools necessary for enduring success in an interconnected, dynamic world through meaningful collaborative relationships, relevant and customized learning, and effective communication.” The new vision is designed to transform the very idea of what a world-class high school should be: “Eastern Technical High School will be a learning environment of equity and excellence that values each and every learner as an individual contributing member of the global community.”

Purpose for Transition and Transformation

Eastern Tech has evolved from a traditional vocational high school when it opened in 1970 to a first-class career and technical education (CTE) institution with an enrollment of 1,170 students. The school currently offers courses in the health professions, business management and finance, construction management, culinary arts, engineering, information technology, interactive media production, criminal justice, and the Teacher Academy of Maryland. 

Students perform extraordinarily well. Demographically, the student body is composed of 52 percent Caucasian students, 25 percent African-American, 19 percent Asian, and 4 percent Hispanic. Of those, 23 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals. Daily average attendance last year was 96.9 percent. During the 2015-16 school year, students demonstrated outstanding performance: 100 percent of students met the career completer standards, and 100 percent met the University of Maryland course entrance standards. The average SAT score was 1086 for reading and math. Eighty-eight percent of seniors have taken at least one AP course; the AP pass rate last year was 79 percent with 799 tests taken. And, 94 percent of students committed to a four-year or two-year college. Newsweek recently named Eastern Tech the 185th-best public high school in the nation, fourth-best in Maryland, and first in Baltimore County. Though many public schools would be happy with those statistics, Eastern Tech knew there was still work to be done.

Our goal is to provide students with opportunities that will help them achieve at even higher levels and develop important traits necessary for success in the future as we imagined them in K.A.D.I. and C.O.L.E.

Creating a School of Innovation

After several weeks of intense discussion, the leadership team felt that four “I words” dominated the thinking behind the transformation of the school: Inspire, Integrate, Investigate, and Innovate. We determined that mentors would inspire students by sharing their experiences in different professions and by serving as members of the career major advisory boards. Those mentors will help students integrate 21st-century skills in problem solving, design, and communication into presentations and design projects. We outlined that mentors would work with students to investigate local and global issues in areas such as the environment, technology, manufacturing, social services, and more. Mentors were also charged with providing students with examples of innovation in their field. We want students to be inspired to be lifelong learners.

Makerspace and the 21st-century Student

Rethinking our learning spaces quickly became a key element in the redesign of our school. An aging building presents unique problems. One of the first steps involved the revitalization of our school spaces, including the reorganization of our building, the redesign of our classrooms, and the implementation of nontraditional learning environments, such as “makerspaces.” We have developed one of several innovation labs (the I-Lab)-areas that will enable students to be involved with project-based, hands-on learning with practical, real-world applications. The I-Lab includes a collaboration loft, research den, large and small tool areas, a construction area, a textile and electronics area, a communications network lab, and a print and digital media workshop. These areas are designed to offer students unique and varied educational spaces that promote the development of the qualities and traits of our imaginary students K.A.D.I. and C.O.L.E.

The focus of this reorganization involves building a greater sense of community among staff and students with these learner-centered environments that foster collaboration and provide environments that transcend those of a traditional schoolhouse. Even simple changes such as classroom lighting, rearrangement of furniture, the addition of plants, and attractive bulletin boards send a positive message to students. In addition, Eastern Tech is ideally located near areas of historical, cultural, and environmental significance (such as Washington, D.C.; Baltimore city; Philadelphia; and the Chesapeake Bay), which makes it possible for our students to engage in authentic learning experiences.

In addition, career major curricula, such as engineering, are undergoing reassessment and redesign to better meet the needs of students based on the design-thinking framework (www.designthinkingforeducators.com). As the school moves forward in its five-year plan, staff will be offered extensive professional development that involves choice, customization, and collaboration leading to a community of learning communities.

Raising the Bar with AP Capstone 

Shortly after embarking on this transformational journey, the leadership team realized that the College Board’s two-year AP Capstone program aligned perfectly with the expectations we have for our graduating seniors. Students can earn an AP diploma by taking and passing four AP tests, in addition to taking and passing two classes: AP Seminar and AP Research in grade 12. (Currently, Eastern offers 25 AP courses.) Early in the spring of 2016, we were approved by the College Board to become an AP Capstone school based on our already strong AP enrollment and performance numbers. For the first year, we recruited 129 juniors to take AP Seminar in their junior year-intensive preparation for a year of original, independent research. Our vision is that successful AP Capstone seniors will embody all the qualities of K.A.D.I. and C.O.L.E., and many will find multiple uses for exploration and innovation in the I-Lab.

New Horizons 

At Eastern Tech, our goal is to inspire, integrate, investigate, and innovate. Learning is fluid and dynamic, and the schoolhouse should be as well. That means evolving with the times and embracing the changes necessary to ensure that our students have the opportunities to do the amazing things that we undoubtedly know they are capable of doing. We encourage other CTE schools-and all schools—to embark on a similar, exciting journey into the future. 

Harry James Cook is the English department chair at Eastern Technical High School in Baltimore.

Advice for School Leaders

  • Take time to investigate the various new approaches to learning that incorporate critical thinking and applying content knowledge to real-world problems. Find one approach that fits with your school’s vision and build your own capacity around the idea.
  • Develop your passion so that you can authentically inspire other members of your team to invest additional time and effort into creating and implementing the new plan. This is an important step that often is overlooked. Do not hesitate to roll up your sleeves and paint, clean, or do whatever needs to be done to make your vision become a reality.
  • Create an integrated team of individuals who vary in talent and expertise. These individuals may be different from those in your traditional leadership group. Tap into your staff to collaborate and develop a plan to ensure your vision comes to fruition and spreads excitement throughout the building.
  • Look at your school’s spaces with a different lens. Think innovatively about redefining your learning environment. Spaces that are currently storage areas may be your next makerspace.