The list of High Technology High School's achievements last year are staggering: fifth place in the National Science Bowl competition; four New Jersey state science fair winners; entries and semifinalists in science fairs sponsored by MIT, Intel, and Siemens; research awards from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps; 30 first-, second-, or third- place awards in the Jersey Shore Science Fair. And here's one more: the best-performing high school in math and science in the country, according to U.S.News & World Report's new rankings of Best High Schools for Math and Science.
"We call it competitive collaboration," Daniel Simon, the school's principal for the last 10 years, says. "The students push each other to do better."
[Read about the rankings methodology for the Best High Schools for Math and Science.]
Simon will be the first to tell you that his school, located on Brookdale Community College's campus in Lincroft, N.J., about an hour south of New York City, starts on an uneven playing field. Just 3 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and the school isn't terribly diverse: 48 percent of the school's 283 students are white, 47 percent are Asian. Just seven students are African American or Hispanic. Its students come from about 50 feeder districts in Monmouth County, where 300 students each year compete for some 70 spots based on students' middle school grades and scores on an entrance exam.
[Learn the latest national high school news in the High School Notes blog.]
But while Simon and district superintendent Tim McCorkell recognize that their students are gifted, they says schools like High Tech are needed to challenge students this motivated.
"The students have very strong skills before they come in the door," McCorkell says. "But do we think we enhance those? Absolutely." He says High Tech is a school that focuses on one thing and does it well. "Look at us as a restaurant, but we only serve one item on the menu."
That item? Engineering.
About 70 percent of High Tech graduates study engineering or a related field in college, and the school has the classes and connections to support them, with a state-of-the-art research lab that's always open. Its high ceilings, ventilation ducts, and warehouse-like feel house student projects ranging from green energy to cancer research.
Nearly 100 percent of High Tech's students will graduate with AP credit; seniors take an average of four AP tests. Through a partnership with the Rochester Institute of Technology, many students will earn college credits through their standard coursework. Others take classes at Brookdale in green energy, computer assisted design, or computer programming.
[Learn why recent high school graduates regret their class selections.]
"People say that it must be easy to do what we do here—and it is, because there's more motivation and fewer discipline problems than at a comprehensive high school," Simon says. "But then there's that other part—the great challenge to meet the needs of these kids. Sometimes they learn so quickly that it's scary. You begin to think 'Do they know more than I do as a professional?'"
Students don't always arrive at the school that way. Freshman year can be shocking because many of them breezed through elementary and middle school.
"We're not going to apologize for challenging them," says Michael T. Roche, who teaches the school's freshman and sophomore year advanced research and data analysis classes. His students spend time their first two years doing high-level research, with the hope that they'll continue as upperclassmen under the supervision of a professional mentor.
Many students complete internships and research with huge corporations, university labs, and nonprofit organizations to solve real-world problems. Senior Vivian Chang studied cancer cells at Monmouth University over the summer; Neil Rangwani is researching cell phone-tower technology.
Students at the pre-engineering school averaged a 2149 out of 2400 on their SATs and every student moved on to a four-year college. But the school doesn't worry about students passing state tests—they're usually bright enough to pass them with little or no preparation.
"All the classes are geared towards getting them out there in the real world," says Pamela MacNeill, director of the school's mentorship program. She says that, occasionally, students will enjoy engineering coursework before finding that real-world engineering isn't for them. "It's the best thing in the world as far as I'm concerned—that they're not wasting four years in college and spending all that money."
Jessica Beck, a senior who plans to study veterinary medicine in college, says she doesn't regret attending High Tech. "Engineering is a great background, even if you're going into humanities, because it teaches you how to solve problems," she says.
[Learn more about the science and math education crisis in our STEM Education Resource Center.]
Such analytical thinking is a requirement at High Tech, where disciplinary action usually comes in the form of—what else?—a research project. If a student is caught cheating, which is extremely rare, Simon will have students research what would happen if they were caught in college, or plagiarizing in their career field. "Everything is about real-life application," he says. "It's teaching them that there are real, hard consequences that go along with this stuff in the real world."
Five of High Tech's teachers are former practicing engineers, something Simon says is an integral part of the school's success.
"The beauty of that is they know the field. They can make reference to something they experienced," he says. "They're book smart and street smart."
Learning from a successful engineer might motivate some students, but the faculty and students say the almost-collegial atmosphere is really the key to High Tech. Every locker in High Tech High stays open during the school day, filled with students' belongings. Simon says it's a sign of the students' trust for one another.
During free time, seniors hang out in the downstairs commons excitedly chatting, challenging each other to chess, or studying. Almost every student participates in an extracurricular activity. In just a few years, the math team went from being a small club to being forced to have tryouts.
"They feel safe about that kind of unquenchable thirst for knowledge," he says. "They're not ashamed of the fact that they are studious and academically gifted."
See U.S. News's coverage of Best High Schools for rankings, STEM news, and more.