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High Tech's Hiring 'Bonanza'

Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009 | Parag Chowdhury had never taught a high school science class before this one — and this one could decide whether he gets a job. Twenty-three teenagers gazed expectantly up at him as he fiddled with his laptop, trying to get a video to play. School directors and other teachers stood in the back of the classroom watching as he tapped at the keyboard.

They were all tasked with judging Chowdhury as a potential teacher based on his ambitious lecture on the psychobiology of superstition that spanned the makeup of the human brain to what Barack Obama carries in his pockets. The pressure was on and the video refused to play. Chowdhury rolled with it and the kids did too.

“What else do you expect on Friday the 13th?” said Chowdhury as he clicked past to another slide about how scientists map out the shapes of cells.

Within minutes the video mishap was forgotten as Chowdhury talked about electron microscopes, how the brain works when you skateboard, and a gruesome accident that wiped out the frontal lobe of an unlucky railroad worker named Phineas Gage. A student interrupted with an unrelated question about brain tumors and her classmates shot her dirty looks. “Wait, I want to hear the end of the story!” one hissed.

Chowdhury was among the dozens of teachers auditioning on a recent Friday for a coveted job at High Tech High, a system of eight charter schools that use interactive projects that blur the lines between math and literature and science and history to engage kids in their education. They are public schools that look like few other public schools, with walls spangled with comic books of physics-inspired superheroes and underwater photos from a student diving trip to Belize; media labs and art galleries; and classes where students call teachers by their first names.

“Students here have a lot of freedom. The style of teaching and learning is very, very different,” Chowdhury said. “It’s an amazing place.”

Its hiring process is just as unique. High Tech High screens employees through a lengthy process — called a bonanza — that brings a crowd of applicants on campus to mingle with teachers and directors, tour classes, and teach sample classes to students who grade their work. They talk in a group about a sticky and sensitive subject — white privilege — with their potential bosses listening in. And they are grilled by the same students they hope to someday teach in a whirlwind hour that looks and feels like speed dating for teachers.

“I don’t know of anywhere that does something quite that comprehensive,” said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group that believes improving teaching is the key to improving education.

One teacher compared the process to an episode of “Top Chef” where cooks vie for the top job. Exhausted interviewees might call it “Survivor.” The process is more extensive and involves students more systematically than a typical interview to teach in a public school district. Though Chowdhury found it similar to what he had once undergone to teach medical students and undergraduates, it is unheard of among national experts and bowls over would-be-teachers accustomed to shorter, simpler interviews for public school jobs.

“Their jaws drop,” said Emilee Belier, a young humanities teacher who has applied for a spot at High Tech High for the second time in two years. “They’re like, ‘You’re in there for how long?'”

The liberty to do things differently is a hallmark of charter schools such as High Tech High, which are publicly funded but run independently under their own boards of directors. They are free from many of the rules that restrict school districts and can create their own procedures to seek out and hire employees. Charter schools also get some wiggle room on the credentials needed for teachers for elective classes, allowing them to hire working sculptors or painters to teach art or videographers straight from Hollywood.

High Tech High is now visited by principals from as far as Minnesota eager to learn from its hiring practices, a mixture of methods borrowed and adapted from other programs and schools.

The idea of having an interviewee spend a whole day at the school and teach a lesson is stolen straight from private schools, said Ben Daley, chief operating officer of the schools. “And we initially started bringing a bunch of people on the same day out of fatigue. We couldn’t bring in all these applicants on different days.”

Jobs at High Tech High are in demand even though its teachers, like many charter educators, are not unionized and don’t enjoy tenure. Daley estimated that more than 700 teachers apply annually for only 35 to 50 spots at the charter schools.

Applicants say they are willing to forgo the protections of a teachers union — and to undergo the marathon interview process — for a chance to work with a smaller cohort of students and experiment with freewheeling projects in its sleek facilities in Point Loma, Chula Vista and San Marcos. Only a few dozen teachers are invited to each monthly “bonanza” after submitting their resumes, cover letters, and credentials and undergoing a short screening interview with school directors. Bonanzas run from February to June.

“We don’t have job security like at a traditional school where you get hired through a one-hour interview and pretty much have a job for life,” said Chris Wakefield, who teaches math and physics to freshmen at High Tech High Media Arts. Teaching here “is a lot of work. But we love it.”

Including the kids in the process is especially unusual. In an airy commons crowded with students and teachers seated in rows of folding chairs, three boys peppered a potential teacher, Beth Marks, with questions about her background and what kinds of projects she liked. Marks launched into a description of a sprawling project on child obesity that would include decoding statistics and learning about organic foods and salmonella.

“How would you control kids if they’re acting up?” asked Michael Osorio, a 6th grader at High Tech Middle Media Arts.

“You can’t control a kid,” Marks said. “But it is important at the beginning of the year to lay down the law and show some discipline. If you show me some respect, I’ll show you respect too.” The boys nodded and moved on to the next question.

It is a prized — and sometimes feared — part of the bonanza. Though students usually agree with the adults about whom to hire, Daley said they have sometimes torpedoed applicants that the adults liked. They record their feedback on forms that the adults gather and review. “They don’t pull any punches. They don’t censor at all,” said Brian Dixon, a multimedia technology teacher at High Tech High North County. “They know if they approve of you, they’ll get stuck with you.”

The importance of hiring well has gained attention among reformers who believe that teachers are the key ingredient to the success or failure of a school. Finding those teachers is difficult because there are few objective, reliable criteria that can predict how effective they are in the classroom. Research suggests that even certification — a cornerstone of No Child Left Behind requirements for teachers — is an unreliable factor.

“Even in the best of circumstances it is an educated guess,” Jacobs said. “So the more things you look at to make a good decision, the better.” She added, “And it is essential that the principal is a part of the process. That is where a lot of school districts are going astray.”

Though teacher hiring has traditionally been run by human-resources staffers far from schools, school districts are increasingly decentralizing their hiring so that principals play a bigger role in selecting the teachers they supervise. Principals in San Diego Unified, for instance, are free to use their own interview methods, including a panel of teachers and parents, a demonstration lesson, or writing an essay on demand, though human-resources staffers make the ultimate hiring decisions.

“We try to do an interview with everyone that we hire,” said Tim Asfazadour, director of certificated staffing in San Diego Unified. “It is not much different than you would find in other school districts.”

But teachers can also be transferred to other San Diego Unified schools once they are part of the system, and principals in many schools can only interview the most senior internal applicants for the job, limiting their hiring pool. Teachers and would-be-teachers at High Tech High rattle off anecdotes that suggest that the interview process in other public schools from Sweetwater to Poway can sometimes be cursory. One teacher said she was once offered a public school job without being interviewed at all.

“I just turned in all my stuff with a receptionist and they said, ‘OK, we’ll get back to you about your school placement,'” said Sara Strong, who teaches math and science at High Tech Middle. “That was it.”

The bonanzas, in contrast, introduce students to their future teachers and immerse employees in the experimental culture of High Tech High from the start. Two high schoolers, Charae Pimentel and Frida Ocadiz, listened during a recent bonanza as applicant Daisy Sharrock told them that she wanted to get them diving lessons to learn about gas and pressures and do a project that showed how crystal meth binds to the brain.

“It seems like you would fit in here,” Pimentel said.

Sharrock laughed quickly. “I hope I do!”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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