Burke High New Tech science class

Burke High teacher Benjamin Plants runs a "store" at the front of a joint laboratory classroom for world geography and earth science on Oct. 5, 2018. Students were given $100 worth of fake money to buy supplies to build a model human colony for Mars. Paul Bowers/Staff

One of Charleston's oldest public schools is shaking up its classrooms in an effort to connect students' learning to the outside world.

Multiple subjects and classrooms have been merged into one. This school year, 10th-graders take a combined class in English and world history, taught by two teachers in tandem in a corner classroom streaming with natural light.

Down the hall in a science lab, teachers Peter Locher and Benjamin Plants lead a joint ninth-grade class in earth science and world geography. On a recent Friday morning, after discussing the technical challenges of establishing a human colony on Mars, Plants handed groups of students $100 worth of fake money and had them buy parts for a model Mars colony.

"It allows the students to see how relevant the content is because it allows them to connect the lessons to real-world problems," said Principal Cheryl Swinton, who came to Burke in 2017 from Wando High.

Founded in 1911 as an all-black school, Burke High has a long history of producing community leaders, activists and scholars — but the school's enrollment and academic achievement have been in decline for generations as white families in Burke's downtown Charleston attendance zone largely choose to send their children to private, magnet and charter schools. 

By most measures, Burke High is not producing students who are ready for college or the workforce. Burke High's graduating class of 2018 performed poorly on the ACT college readiness exam, with a composite score ranking among the bottom 30 schools statewide. And just over one-third of 11th-graders last spring scored well enough on the ACT WorkKeys math exam last spring to be deemed career-ready.

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Student work - Burke High New Tech Network

Tenth grade students at Burke High School work on a computerized quiz and interactive game involving the Age of Exploration in a joint class covering English and world history. Paul Bowers/Staff

Burke's partnership with New Tech Network represents at least the third major program change at Burke High in a decade. Like the Advanced Placement Academy in 2008 and Lowcountry Tech Academy in 2014, the New Tech program launched in 2016 to boost student achievement while attracting peninsula families back into the neighborhood high school, whose population dwindled to about 350 students last school year.

Eric Jackson, a 1995 Burke graduate and chair of the Burke School Improvement Council, said school administrators and teachers traveled to visit other New Tech partner schools in the state and came away impressed.

"Initially we were kind of hesitant. Like the public, we didn’t know a lot about it. But we felt if the teachers and administrators were OK with it, we would support what they needed," Jackson said.

The original New Technology High School was founded in Napa, Calif., in 1996, and became a pioneer in the educational trend of "project-based learning" and technology integration in the classroom. The network was created to replicate the California school's model and has gained the backing of some well-funded philanthropic organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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Two teachers - Burke High New Tech Network

Teachers Kelsey McGee (left) and Amelia Little conduct a join 10th grade class in English and world history on Oct. 5, 2018, at Burke High School in Charleston. Now in its second year partnering with the New Tech Network, Burke pairs off many of its teachers to coordinate lesson plans and share classrooms. Paul Bowers/Staff

A number of case studies have suggested New Tech programs can improve academic results. But among the papers listed on the New Tech website's research page, most were not published in peer-reviewed journals and some were funded by the Network itself. In one August 2017 study, Furman University researchers looked at test scores from more than 300 students in unidentified Southeastern schools and found New Tech students tended to score higher on math and English end-of-course tests, controlling for baseline achievement scores, race and poverty levels.

Now in its second year funded by a three-year, $762,000 grant from the ECMC Foundation, New Tech's partnership with Burke offers training for teachers in a whole new approach to education.

Jeanette Blake, a ninth grade student, said Burke this year is unlike any other school she has attended.

"I've got to work on it and research things myself," she said.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.