Susan Fisher enjoys telling about the time a few years ago when a student with a puzzled look stopped her in a hallway at the Center for Advanced Research and Technology.
He said he had a "C" in chemistry, but the grade wasn't the problem.
"I don't take chemistry," the student told Fisher, chief operating officer for CART, a project-based educational center operated jointly by Fresno and Clovis unified school districts. She smiled and told him that forensic sciences was a chemistry class.
Brief encounters like those, Fisher said, are what CART is about -- unconventional learning in a nontraditional setting.
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"I congratulated the teachers for delivering chemistry through a different lens," she said.
CART, which commemorates its 10th anniversary Saturday, remains one of the state's most recognized and respected alternative high school programs. About 1,300 juniors and seniors from 17 high schools split their days between their home high school and CART, where they work on projects with the local business community in a workplace environment.
It was highlighted as one of a handful of model schools in a state Department of Education report called "Multiple Pathways for Student Success -- Envisioning the New California High School" that was made public two weeks ago.
Fisher said she has hosted visitors from as far away as Japan and Sri Lanka.
Officials measure the center's success several ways, including graduation rates. Nearly every year, all the center's seniors graduate from their home high school, and 95% of them enroll in postsecondary institutions -- trade schools, colleges or universities.
CART will soon be directed by Devin Blizzard, Alta Sierra Intermediate School's principal. Fisher, who has worked at CART since its opening, is retiring this month.
Blizzard started Fresno County's first robotics program in 2002 when he was principal at Clovis Unified's Copper Hills Elementary. The program is now used in most local elementary, junior high and high schools.
He said CART is a learning laboratory for both students and teachers, who create "a small college vibe" on the campus.
"If it's relevant, kids will learn out of passion, not compliance," he said. "If you work toward a student's passion, you will get incredible yields in return."
Results in the workplace
Another measure of CART's success is how its graduates fare in the work world, which is just starting to become evident.
Alums include Forest Bronzan, 27, who owns an expanding Bay Area online marketing company with 12 employees. Bronzan said the group projects he did at CART are similar to what happens every day in his workplace.
"The collaborative landscape that they promote has a lot of parallels with the real business world," said Bronzan, a 2001 Bullard High graduate. "You have to work with others to get where you need to be, and CART fostered that open, transparent and collaborative environment."
While at CART, he wrote action plans during his internship rather than reading about them in textbooks. And, Bronzan said, he still consults with CART teacher Bruce Hoffman.
"It gave me a big kick-start into marketing courses in college," Bronzan said. "I definitely felt I had a huge advantage."
Fellow alum Michael Moya, who earned his medical degree in April from Ross University School of Medicine, credits CART with finding physician mentors for him to shadow as a senior in high school and while at Fresno State. When he was at Fresno State, Moya was credited, along with his mentors, with publishing a research paper.
He said he would have never had access to the physicians without CART.
"The curriculum was very focused," said Moya, a 2002 Clovis High graduate. "We were taking courses in anatomy, psychology and biochemistry, and it gave me a stronger foundation when I moved to college and medical school because I had seen some of those things before."
Moya, 26, returns to CART each year to talk to biomedicine students. He wants to return to the Valley for his medical internship and residency. He says he knows of a handful of other CART alums who are in medical school or have earned their M.D.
Many students are not academic stars when they first come to CART.
"CART was developed for the middle-of-the-road student, to motivate the student who was not working up to his or her potential," Fisher said.
Because it's a workplace environment -- on occasion, Fisher reminds students to take their feet off their desk or remove a hat -- they must complete group projects. They spend a half-day at their home high school and are bused to and from CART, where they spend a half-day.
"In a project-based environment, you can give them a project that challenges them," she said. "You can meet them where they are and take them to a higher level."
CART has more relevance to students because they work directly with the business community, Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson said.
"They are in an adult setting with challenging problems and a teacher who will push them ... and help them work through their problems," he said.
Although CART's founders always planned for an even split of Fresno and Clovis unified students, initially more came from Clovis. That changed five years ago after Hanson was hired as Fresno Unified's superintendent.
Hanson said he started urging high school administrators to boost the marketing of CART after he saw the program's strengths firsthand during a showcase of students' work.
"One of the first presentations I saw was a student explaining to me how he cloned a carrot," Hanson said. "Now, I went to pretty good schools and I was pre-med, but I was struggling to keep up with this kid."
This year, nearly 650 of CART's 1,300 students are from Fresno Unified schools.
Planning for CART began in the mid-1990s when Walt Buster, then-Clovis Unified's superintendent, started discussing the concept with then-Fresno Unified Superintendent Chuck McCully.
It doesn't surprise McCully that former CART students are graduating from medical school and starting their own businesses.
"Those were the expectations we had," he said.
Educators in California knew that CART had great potential to provide a new alternative to traditional high schools.
The center is unusual, not only because it is a joint Fresno-Clovis project, but also because the focus is project-based education with links to the business community.
"It was so out-of-the-box," said Pat Ainsworth, an assistant superintendent with the state Department of Education, who attended CART's opening 10 years ago. "They had the sense that many people have, that we needed to do high schools differently ... [schools] that would work for students that are disengaged."
The key to CART's future is to keep evolving, officials said. As some courses become more mainstream, the staff continues to develop more cutting-edge class work.
"CART wasn't going to be static," Buster said. "It has to always be changing."
The center relies on the good will -- donations, internships and working relationships -- of corporate partners.
Grundfos Pumps donated a warehouse building for the school. The company's former president, Jerry Cook, who serves on CART's board, said the project seemed "ridiculously risky" at the start.
There were concerns that the two districts could not cooperate and that students would not get along or that graffiti would show up at the school.
But none of the worries materialized.
Cook said the teachers blended "remarkably well" and students showed up ready to learn. Both Fisher and Cook say there has never been a fight at the school.
"From the first day ... none of the kids cared about what school you were from, they were there to work together," Cook said.