O'NEALS — Outside the high school library, a student carrying a camera grabbed Principal Michael Niehoff's attention. "Give me your game face," he said before snapping a picture.
Minutes later, the principal's photo — his face scrunched and lips pursed — had been uploaded onto a computer, posted onto an ad for a staff-versus-student basketball game, and broadcast on big screen TVs throughout this tiny, tech-savvy campus in Madera County's foothills.
This is Minarets High — the county's newest high school and a model for what public education might look like in the future.
Here, every student gets a laptop. Classes are focused on group projects instead of homework and lectures. After school, students and teachers text each other and use online tools to complete assignments. The library, called the media lounge, is furnished like a coffee shop with large windows and couches. The books are packed in a few rows of shelves in a corner.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
In physical education class, students ride mountain bikes on nearby trails or jump over classmates in team-building exercises. When teachers go to conferences, they take students with them to help with presentations.
Almost every student has a laminated profile posted in the school hallways. It features their name, age, interests — and grade point average.
The posting of grades — which a few Minarets High students have opted out of — fits in with a new model of education.
"That's the idea — you've got to be public, you can't hide," said Niehoff, an energetic and fast-talking 46-year-old, of the publicly posted grades.
Jon Corippo, an English and media teacher who is also Minarets High's instructional technology coordinator, is convinced that his school is the only one in California incorporating all the new trends in education: starting school later in the day when students are more alert (classes start at 8:40 a.m. and end at 4 p.m.), embracing technology, focusing on hands-on and real-world projects, and pushing students toward career preparedness.
"We're the only one doing the whole package," said Corippo. "The big advantage is that we're brand new, so it's a blank slate."
Emy Lopez-Phillips, the Fresno County Office of Education's director of instructional technology, said some charter schools are adopting similar initiatives. But, she said, most public schools are lagging behind Minarets High because they must focus attention on other issues, such as maintaining campus security, helping English-learner students and maintaining academic requirements.
Minarets has few English learners and its students come from a mix of socio- economic backgrounds, although they are generally a bit more well-off than the average family in Madera County.
The school, Lopez-Phillips said, is a model for what schools can look like under ideal circumstances: a team of creative leaders and a small student population.
"They definitely stand out," Lopez-Phillips said. "Minarets is a 21st-century school."
A customized campus
Set on rolling, green hills with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop, this picturesque campus opened in September with about 135 freshmen and sophomores. Over the next three years, the school plans to add 300 to 400 students.
Reaction to the $75 million high school has been overwhelmingly positive: Parents who visit the school are jealous that they didn't get to attend it, students describe Minarets High as "awesome" and teachers talk about having found their dream jobs.
About half the students are transfers from other districts in Madera County — meaning they are willing to travel farther to attend the school.
The school has attracted attention from officials at universities and high schools across the state who are interested in finding out how Minarets High's educational approaches have worked out.
It's unclear how the students will perform academically in the long run. Because Minarets High is still in its inaugural year, officials haven't had a chance to see how the students do on standardized tests.
Before designing the school, the district hired a consulting company that surveyed residents on what they wanted for a new high school. The consultant concluded that the school should focus on a handful of areas — media, arts and agriculture — and should make sure students learn marketable skills that can be used after they graduate, even if they don't go to college, said Barbara Bigelow, a district board member.
She said the board embraced the consultant's recommendations to incorporate new technologies — including laptops that cost $1,000 each, an expense partially offset by reduced spending on textbooks.
Materials from textbooks are loaded onto the laptops.
"We're on the cutting edge," Bigelow said. "This is definitely the way that most high schools are going."
Students: Easier to get help
On a recent morning, a dozen music students reclined on couches in the media lounge, each working on a project with a laptop open. Asked what they thought of their school, the students heaped on praise.
Sarah Bradshaw, a 14-year-old sophomore, said that if she doesn't understand her homework assignments, her teachers will go online for a video chat after school to explain them.
"Here, if you need help, they will show you exactly what you need to do," she said.
The students say they're happy to carry laptops instead of bulky textbooks. Studying on laptops is "less boring" and "doesn't make you want to fall asleep," said 16-year-old Justin Crossley.
What about students who try to surf the Internet and update their Facebook profile while in class? The school thought of that, so it gave teachers the power to remotely access and even lock down students' laptops if they abuse their privileges.
The school also tries to make the campus a place where students are encouraged to hang out — during school hours and after.
At lunch breaks, for example, 15-year-old sophomore Jamin Baker and his heavy metal band, Charun, often rock out on campus. On some Friday nights, the school turns the media lounge into a low-key performance night for musicians, featuring pizza and decaf coffee.
One student, 16-year-old sophomore Alonnah Barkdull, wrote on her public profile: "Every day I wake up and can't wait to get to school. Before high school, I was always absent. Now that I go to Minarets High I have perfect attendance."
Victoria Ashton, mother of ninth-grader Miranda, said her daughter and another ninth-grader who lives with them have never been more excited to attend school.
"They're bored when they're at home," she said.