Questions for Larry Rosenstock
Saturday, Sept. 2, 2006 | All is mellow and quiet inside High Tech High. But Larry Rosenstock, CEO and founding principal, knows it’s about to end. And once the tranquility breaks, it won’t be back until June.
In his 30th year in public education, Rosenstock has seen his fair share of new school years. This year, the former carpenter and lawyer was cool and relaxed as the school year approached.
The nonchalant educator now leads a group of charter schools embarking on a plan to greatly expand on the initial success at High Tech High by adding 10 more facilities across California. HTH is the first to have a statewide charter allowing it to function as its own district. So, while most school districts are made up of areas, this one’s made up of an idea.
It all began in 1998 when local business leaders were discussing ways to prepare young people for the high-tech workforce. They eventually opened the Gary & Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High charter school in 2000, and later added on middle and elementary schools. High Tech High is now essentially an education chain – comprised of three high schools, two middle schools and one elementary school in its San Diego campus. Another high school is located in the Silicon Valley.
Inside the walls of a tranquil school building, Rosenstock talked about how carpentry landed him his first teaching gig, why the start of the school year is like having a baby, and why some charters schools succeed while others fail.
How did you get into education?
I was working as a carpenter. I had a job at a settlement house – they have them on the East Coast for recent immigrants, created in the 1800s – and this settlement house needed a dark room built in the attic so that the students, kids who came after school and other people could go up into the area and do photography. I was building this darkroom.
Then the kids would come over at the end of school and started coming upstairs to the attic. I started showing some kids how to do some carpentry. I don’t remember the name of the director of the place but he was a really nice guy. He said to me, “You’re pretty good at this stuff working with kids, you should think about teaching.” That’s how it started.
What do you do to prepare yourself for the start of the school year?
Myself? Not much. It’s sort of like having a baby – you’re not ready until the kids come. But there are a lot of people running around doing a lot of preparation work right now. We got a bunch of new teachers, because we’ve grown and we have a lot of students. We had orientations for them. I participated in some of those. So there’s just some scheduling and getting ready. You hear how mellow and quiet it is right now? That’s about to end. It’ll be like this again only in June next year.
What makes HTH schools different?
We have a truly integrated school. We have kids who are disadvantaged and we have kids who are advantaged. We have kids who are working class and kids who are middle class. We have kids of every complexion. We have kids who were selected by blind lottery, by computer from all over the metropolitan area. So we’re always reflective of metropolitan San Diego. We don’t segregate kids at all once they get in honors classes, because that means we have dumb classes, so we don’t do that.
How do you get involved with HTH?
Well Gary Jacobs (former director of education programs at Qualcomm) was part of a 40-person effort to look at education in San Diego. They were a bunch of business people who wanted to create future leaders in San Diego for various sectors of the economy. They thought they would create their own independent public school and they didn’t know how to do that. I was here to do other work. I had just moved here from Cambridge (Mass.) and they asked if I could come over and describe to them how you can have a public school that’s autonomous rather than part of the district. I explained that to them and they decided they wanted to create a charter school.
What were some of the obstacles that came up when you were establishing HTH?
Getting a facility was the hardest part. We had to find something that was vacant. Here we had this Navy base which was being given back to the city after 100 years, that was really good. We had to negotiate with the developer, we had to negotiate with financing, we had to get building permits for an area that the city didn’t have maps on, because it was owned by the Navy and the Navy didn’t need building permits.
So we had a share of things just getting in here. Other than that, we had a lot of turnover in the first year, that’s typical to any start-up in the private sector. Now, it’s much more settled.
How many students do you have this incoming year?
We already have 2,100 students in six schools. We have an elementary, two middle and three high schools, and we also have one school in Silicon Valley that has a few hundred students. Last spring we had 285 openings and over 3,000 applications.
A recent New York Times article talked about how test scores show students in charter schools are lagging compared to those in public school, how do you respond to that?
I’m a daily New York Times reader and I know they are very opposed to charter schools. That author has been taking shots at charter schools for the last two years. So I just accept the fact that because of their politics, they’re opposed to charters.
The issue with those studies is twofold. One of them is that there are a lot of bad charter schools and we all get averaged in together. [HTH] happens to be a very strong one. The other thing is studies like that one look at charters in their first year or two. With most charters after four or five years out, that’s when they start to show growth. It’s pretty insane in the first year or so, like any kind of start-up. That’s what I think
What main challenges do charter schools face?
I’ve been a carpenter and a lawyer in my life. With a lot of carpenters, their companies fail. They’re good carpenters but they don’t know how to do finances. Same thing happens with small, one-shop lawyers. So when you have small entities, you really have to be on top of finances.
Quiet a few [charter schools] collapse because of financial reasons, and they just don’t know how to care of the money. Some of them have weak practices. But about 4 percent of charter schools close and they close mostly because of financial impropriety or financial collapse.
HTH was just granted a statewide charter, what does this mean?
We have license to open 10 schools in California. We’re going to open two of them next fall in 2007. One is going to be in Chula Vista. The other one, we’re not sure yet where it’s going to be. The good thing about it is that we’re going to get our license from the state so that’s really preferable. I think it’s hard for the school district with 187 schools to have to deal with charters as well.
Are there any specific plans yet on where the new schools will be built?
There’s nothing specific yet, but we have a lot of possible places that we’re looking at. There are so many variables in putting together the real estate propositions for schools. It’s about the real estate – it’s not about whether you have good teachers, or the know-how or anything like this.
It’s just about if we can find a building that’s like a warehouse, that’s near green spaces, that doesn’t have NIMBYism, that is relatively easy to get to since Southern California has very little public transportation. There are a lot of qualities that you’re looking for in a building. But the schools will be in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and Orange County.
What else does the future hold for HTH schools?
It’s a couple of things. We want to be self-sustaining. As a not-for-profit, we need a certain number of schools to be self-sufficient. We also don’t like turning away nine out of 10 students – it’s pretty gory. A lot of people are calling right now trying to get in and there’s no room for them.
What are some of the big problems you see in education?
The biggest issue is segregating kids. There is segregating kids by social class, gender, language ability, what’s perceived as academic ability. Another is separating the idea of using your hands to make things from using your head to think about things. We want kids to think and make things. We want them to do both well.
We don’t want teachers in this sort of autonomous isolated classroom; we want them to be collaborating with others across disciplines. We want schools and the world outside of school to be integrated.
– Interview by MARNETTE FEDERIS