It’s not every high school in America that gets 1,000 visitors through its doors each year, peering into classrooms and peppering students with questions as they pass through the halls. But the students at Manor New Technology High School are used to seeing school guests wandering through their school, from reporters lugging television cameras and note-scribbling writers to wide-eyed educators from across the globe and even the President of the United States.
Manor (pronounced Main-er) is a small town east of Austin with a diverse, younger than average population. The student population of Manor is three-quarters white and Hispanic, about one-quarter African American with a splash of Asian – in fact, Manor is quite diverse. And the student population at Manor New Tech reflects that diversity.
Behind the helm at Manor New Tech is principal Steve Zipkes – a passionately dedicated educator who isn’t content to stick with the status quo at his school. And that’s why his students are easily exceeding national averages in virtually every area of achievement, thanks in large part to Zipkes’ dedication to project-based learning.
A veteran educator, Zipkes has a BS in Radio, Television and Film from the University of Texas and an M. Ed. in School Administration from Sul Ross State. He also holds Mid-Management and Superintendent certifications and worked in those areas before participating in UTeach at the University of Texas – a program that helps college graduates earn their teaching certifications and return to work in classrooms promoting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. Zipkes is also the CoDesigner/Creator of Think Forward PBL, an institute that brings educators up to speed in project-based learning.
Zipkes founded Manor New Tech eight years ago and has watched the accolades roll in since then. The school has been named as an Apple Distinguished School every year since 2008, and Zipkes himself was chosen as an Apple Distinguished Educator. Among other awards and recognition, Manor New Tech has been named a Model School by the International Center for Leadership in Education and a Secondary Showcase School by the Center for Secondary School Redesign. The school has been featured as a Nationally Recognized High School by US News & World Report and recognized by the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Every year since Manor New Tech opened, its students have outperformed the average on all state tests, something that doesn’t typically happen at a school where 52 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches.
Manor New Tech has a 99.4 percent graduation rate, and 100 percent of graduates have been accepted into college. Those numbers look even better when you consider that 62 percent of students who attend the school are first-generation college attendees.
Project-Based Learning in Action
Zipkes believes that project-based learning is the key to success at Manor New Tech, which is part of the New Tech Network of schools. Most of the classes at the school are team-taught along with math or engineering, incorporating STEM into the learning process as much as possible.
In class, students gather into small groups and work together on projects, averaging about 50 to 65 during the course of the year. Students take five classes during the day, meaning at any given moment, they are working on five different projects at once, all of which might be at different points in the process.
Student projects are assessed for what Zipkes calls the five 21st Century skills: communication, collaboration, work ethic, critical thinking and research. At the end of each project, students must give oral presentations, meaning every student who graduates from Manor New Tech has delivered more than 200 public presentations before heading off to college. It’s a number that’s unprecedented at traditional public high schools.
Zipkes’ goal with project-based learning at Manor New Tech is to simulate a real world work environment in the classroom. Whether students are put into groups or create their own, their first task is to draw up a contract and determine roles and responsibilities for each group member. And if one group member falls behind in terms of sharing the work load, the other members can decide to fire that member, who will then have to complete the project alone or find another group willing to work with him or her.
“It’s almost like a work environment,” Zipkes says. “It’s a fun place where students want to be.”
Classes are collaborative, with teachers on hand to offer guidance and support, but you won’t see standard lectures in the classrooms at Manor New Tech. Here they’re optional, offered as workshops for students who feel they need extra assistance in a certain area.
“Everyone has a curriculum and the state tells you want to teach,” Zipkes says. “What makes a difference is how you take that knowledge and apply it.”
When it comes to traditional education models, Zipkes is ready to admit that things could stand to be changed significantly across the board.
“I’m kind of an outlier,” Zipkes says. “I tell it like it is.” Such as admitting that students no longer really need to come to school 180 days a year due to the ease of online learning. However that’s a leap that most educators aren’t quite ready to consider yet. Still, Zipkes manages to foster a school environment that is on the cutting edge.
“We have a math and science problem in America; well, is it because we continue to do the same old, same old?” he asks. “If you expect students to sit there and spit information out to them and for them to regurgitate it back, those days are gone.”
Zipkes extends the hands-on learning to cover those skills that would be helpful to students who decide not to enter college right after graduation. Manor New Tech students take three or four Career and Technology Education classes per day, learning to use the same technology currently used in office suites across the globe, such as Final Cut Pro.
Manor New Tech is a STEM school, but the term can be applied to many different approaches to learning. Zipkes feels that project-based learning is essential to promoting STEM in schools.
“To me, STEM is a conceptual idea,” he says. “It’s not math, science, engineering and technology only.” Instead, Zipkes believes that STEM content must be integrated and used in real-world authentic projects to keep students engaged. And that’s where project-based learning makes all the difference.
The Future of Hands-On Learning
Zipkes isn’t just catching the eyes of those in the education field with his work at Manor New Tech. He and the school currently partner with numerous high-tech companies, including Samsung, Applied Materials/Tokyo Electronics and Freescale Semiconductor. Looking forward, it’s Zipkes’ hope that he can team up with these businesses to build a fabrication laboratory on the Manor New Tech campus where corporate partners and the University of Texas’ Nanotechnology Center can work with students to develop the hands-on skills needed for a career in the tech industry.
With 30 percent of STEM jobs unfilled, Zipkes feels that for some students who choose not to go to college, giving them these real-world skills can prepare them to fill some of these needed technical positions. By pairing these skills with effective communication methods, Zipkes believes graduates from Manor New Tech will be better prepared to enter the workforce than their peers.
The students who graduate from Manor New Tech enter the real world, whether it’s college or the workforce, with a leg up on the competition. Coming from the project-based environment, Manor New Tech students not only graduate with more math, science and engineering credits than any other students in the state, they also have the poise and confidence it takes to stand before college deans and potential employers and effectively sell themselves.
Zipkes is incredibly proud of his students, not only because of their numerous measurable achievements, but also because of their impressive communication skills, something he feels puts them at a large advantage over other students. “If they get an interview,” Zipkes says, “they’re in.”
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