Integrating Head and Hand into Secondary Education: Larry Rosenstock's Story

If you had told Larry Rosenstock 40 years ago that he would spend much of his adult career working in high schools, he would have laughed. But today, Rosenstock is the name behind one of the most successful charter school programs in the country – High Tech High – and president of High Tech High’s Graduate School of Education, the only graduate program of its kind embedded in K-12 schools. He has dedicated his life to integrating students across social classes and ethnic groups to create a learning environment that not only allows students to use their hands and minds but involves the community in the learning process.

Rosenstock didn’t have a linear path to education. Born in New York to Italian immigrants, he learned early the meaning of hard work. His grandmother was the first female taxi driver in New York City. At the time Rosenstock decided to pursue a law degree at Boston University, he was an single dad. Much to his parents’ chagrin, he pursued a degree, while supporting his family by teaching carpentry and woodworking classes to urban youth – a passion he’d continue for 11 years.

“At the time I entered law school in 1973, it was the height of desegregation,” said Rosenstock. “I noticed two surprising things as a teacher and law student. One was the similarities between social classes – my students, who were from working class families, were just as bright as the middle-class kids I attended law school with. And the second was that my students thrived when they were able to put into practice what they learned – building and creating. I was inspired.”


Hands-on, Project-based Learning

In 1998, Rosenstock connected with a Silicon Valley technology friend who was having trouble finding qualified engineers to fill key roles, which sparked the discussion of a school focused on science, technology and math.  A year-and-a-half later in 2000, the first High Tech High School (HTH) launched. Today, there are 13 schools, nearly 7,000 students and 700 employees.

A liberal arts school in disguises, HTH’s focus is to educate students to the best of their abilities and change the world. HTH schools also strive to serve a student body that is representative of all social classes within its greater community. It utilizes a lottery system based on zip codes to select students to attend.

“Public education is the single institution more than any other that best gives one the ability to rise above social disadvantage, yet it is the least changed in our society,” said Rosenstock. “We wanted a school that didn’t focus on where students came from, but creates an environment that challenges all students to think and create – trying on different hats and identities as scientists, engineers and artists.”

HTH engages students in an adult world, allowing them to integrate their hands, hearts and minds in rigorous projects. Each year, the students exhibit their work and invite the community to see and learn from it. This structure has been successful. Rosenstock said 98% of its students go on to college and 1% to military school. This is why more than 5,000 guests a year visit the school seeking insight into building this type of school in their cities and countries across the globe to improve retention and graduation rates. In 2010, Rosenstock was honored for this work with the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education.

“High Tech High students are better prepared, ask more questions, attend office hours and are more persistent in college,” said Rosenstock. “We also have double the national average majoring in STEM in college. They go on to publish books, start businesses, develop patents and invent things.”

But focusing on students is only part of the equation. Rosenstock went on to launch the High Tech High Graduate School of Education (GSE) in 2004, the first graduate school of education to emerge from and be fully embedded within a K-12 charter school network of innovative, project-based schools. GSE boasts a master’s in educational leadership, teacher credentialing, a leadership academy and professional education and workshops to transform teachers as change agents in education and learning.

“Most graduate schools in education are still very traditional and lack practical application,” said Rosenstock. “It’s like going to medical school and never seeing a body. You can’t develop great teachers without implementing a project-based learning model. HTH serves as our clinical site for learning, providing our GSE students an opportunity to take risks and mold their own visions for teaching and learning.”

Today, Rosenstock isn’t thinking about slowing down – he’s traveling the world advising and implementing new programs and educational concepts. He has also served as lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and visiting associate professor at UC Berkeley School of Education. He’s also developed several MOOCs — including a course called “How to Teach Us” through Coursera.

“If I can provide any guidance to new graduates, it would be to find a social challenge that you want to dedicate your life, work hard at it but always remember to have fun,” said Rosenstock. “I’m still working very hard but having fun.”