Big Picture – A Better School Model?

This is from the Big Picture USA website. A well written article and hits the nail on the head as to why it is a great alternative to our secondary school system for those students who don’t fit in.

Big Picture: A Better School Model?

by Sarah M. Fine
November 16, 2009

The Big Picture Learning Company structures high schools around the belief that kids learn best when they are doing what they love. In the world of American public education, this is nothing short of radical.

It is a chilly Thursday morning in Rhode Island and the Met School’s Media and Performing Arts Center is hopping. Eight seniors huddle in a corner of the black box theater, conferring excitedly. In a sound studio nearby, a shaggy-haired sophomore with headphones scrutinizes a computer screen full of musical notations.

I peer through soundproof glass into the Center’s conference room, where a group of colorfully dressed students sit around a seminar table. Clearly, something important is happening. Two students talk animatedly to the group, gesturing at a hand-drawn chart on the wall. The others hunch over their notebooks and scribble to keep up, and one girl trains a camcorder on the speakers. The teacher, a grandfatherly African-American man at the head of the table, watches the goings-on with a faint smile.

The Met, short for the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, is a state-funded school district that serves roughly 700 students in six small schools across Providence and Newport, Rhode Island. It also functions as the prototype for the Big Picture Learning Company, a 14-year-old nonprofit that works to promote the Met’s design and philosophy. To date, Big Pictures Learning has helped to open more than 60 public and charter high schools around the U.S., most of which serve at-risk teens and all of which follow a project-based curriculum. The organization’s innovative approach has earned it a reputation for excellent alternative schooling as well as grants from funders such as the Gates Foundation.

Curious about the scene unfolding in the conference room, I turn to Mike, the tireless 10th-grade “advisor” with whom I have been tagging along for a day and a half. He explains that the kids sitting around the table are a group of interns working for Music One, a company devoted to fostering youth talent and creating positive-themed music. The company’s director, Terrell Osborne, comes to the Center two days a week to teach the group about the music business and to mentor them as they compose and work on their own music.

Mike points to the girl with the video camera, one of the 15 advisees that began working with him last year as a freshmen and will remain with him until they graduate. “Angela’s an amazing kid,” he says. “She’s one of the lead singers in the music video project that the group is doing, and for her individual project she’s making a behind-the-scenes documentary about the process.” Angela, a slender African-American with a radiant smile, catches sight of us through the window and waves energetically with her free hand.

Real Work in the Real World
The masterminds behind Big Picture Learning are Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, educators with a zeal for what they like to call “disruptive innovation.” The two met in college and lived parallel but separate professional lives until they were given the opportunity by the state of Rhode Island to open an alternative public high school in Providence. There, they strove to build a model that realized their shared beliefs about education: first, schools should stay small; second, learning should be individualized and relationship-based; and third, traditional schools spend far too much energy trying to keep students in their seats.

“I have always thought it’s hysterical that inside the school building we work really hard to make lessons that look and feel real, when all the while, the real world is going on outside — and it’s filled with history, social issues, work issues, scientific exploration, math, writing, technology and everything else,” Littky writes in his book, The Big Picture: Education Is Everybody’s Business. “Why don’t we just step back outside?”

Accordingly, Big Picture Learning schools push students to pursue “real work” whenever possible. Academic classes, which occur only three days a week, emphasize depth and practical application. Instead of taking biology, for example, 10th grade students at the Met spend one afternoon a week working with education specialists at the zoo. Back at school, their advisors support them in documenting the skills and knowledge they gain from this work.

Assessment at Big Picture Learning schools is equally unconventional. Four times a year, students prepare and deliver 45-minute “exhibitions” in which they share their work with a panel of students, teachers, administrators and parents. Students are evaluated on the quality of their work as well as demonstrated progress toward their individualized learning goals, which are determined at the beginning of each year. For the most part, feedback comes in the form of lengthy narratives rather than numeric grades.

The real real work at Big Picture Learning schools takes the shape of an intense four-year-long internship program. During their fall semester, freshmen undergo training to prepare them for the rigors of working in the professional world, learning everything from telephone etiquette to resume-writing. At the same time, with the guidance of their home advisors — teachers who “loop” with them throughout all four years — they reflect on their skills and professional aspirations. “We want to get kids in touch with themselves,” explained Washor in a recent interview. “We help them figure out what they love and then we support them in pursuing that.”

By the middle of their freshman year, the students are ready to get to work. Literally. They interview with one or more of the school’s local businesses partners until they land a position to which they report on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the school day. Teachers spend these days tutoring students who are between internships and doing site visits in order to help their advisees prepare rigorous presentations about their work. Some students change internships every few months, exploring different careers and developing a range of professional skills; some find a niche where they stay for all four years of high school.

Students With Passion
Angela, the ebullient 10th grader with the video camera, describes herself as a Media One “lifer.” She comes out to greet Mike and me after her meeting has ended, and when I ask about her internship she answers with unabashed pride. “I got involved with the group last year as a freshman,” she says. “Back then I just did it after school, but as soon as I got in the recording booth I just fell in love. I knew this was the internship I wanted, and I’m sticking with it. There [are] so many opportunities and so much to learn!”

Angela’s enthusiasm echoes what I observed earlier this morning, when Mike and I drove off-campus to observe some of his other advisees at work. Our first stop was a martial arts dojo, where two students — a brother and sister — were learning karate and business management. They were in the middle of an intense warm-up session which involved coordinating their breath with their movement. After completing a difficult sequence, Mike’s advisee Rafael turned and flashed us a thumbs-up. “Rafael’s focus has completely changed since last year,” Mike said afterward. “He used to be all over the place but now he’s way more on the ball, even when he’s doing math.”

Not surprisingly, Big Picture Learning schools tend to attract unconventional learners. For some, like Rafael, the incentive to leave the traditional system stems from a need for more individual support and a more hands-on curriculum. For others, traditional schools do not provide enough of a challenge. “I got straight A’s in middle school, but I was bored because I had to sit through classes all day long and just do nothing,” says one of Mike’s other advisees. “Now I take classes at Brown University and I work at the attorney general’s office for my internship. It’s hard but way more fun.”

Littky emphasizes that the Big Picture Learning model is designed to ignite all students, regardless of skill level, with a sense of passion and purpose. “Ask anyone to name the single word that comes to mind when you say ‘high school’ and the answer will be ‘boring,’” Littky says. “My goal is to make sure our kids love what they’re doing.”

It certainly seems that they do. Back in the Media and Performing Arts Center, one of the other students from the Media One program, a petite Latina girl with dark eyes, joins Angela in the hallway. “This is my collaborator, Margi,” Angela says, putting her arm around her friend. “We sing together, and this year we’re learning to produce our own stuff — you know, how to write and record music and the business side of it.” Margi, short for Marginez, shakes my hand firmly and asks if I would like to go to the recording studio and hear her and Angela perform a song. Like so many of her peers, she is poised, confident and excited to share her work. “Of course,” I say, and the two girls lead the way.

Making the Grade
The design that Littky and Washor came up with has been successful on many counts. Overall, Big Picture Learning schools see 92 percent of entering freshmen graduate as seniors — an astonishingly high number compared to public schools serving similar populations. 95 percent of graduates are accepted into college, many becoming the first in their families to pursue a higher degree. One of the nonprofit’s recent initiatives involves supporting all graduates through their transition to college and beyond, and this year, in partnership with the Roger Williams University, the Met is even piloting its own internship-based college program.

Just as impressive is the satisfaction that students and parents express when it comes to Big Picture Learning schools. On the Rhode Island School Accountability for Learning and Teaching Survey, the Met led the state in categories such as attendance, parent involvement, school climate and safety, and quality of instruction. Many of the organization’s other schools, notably those in San Diego, Oakland, Detroit and the Bronx, have achieved similar results. A few, such as the campuses in Denver and Chicago, have struggled to establish themselves due to leadership turnover and unsympathetic local school-boards.

Given its overall success, it seems odd that Big Picture Learning would fall off the map when it comes to making national headlines — but it does. Washor explains the phenomenon as partly ideological and partly practical. “We’re a philosophy and a practice, not a brand like Green Dot or KIPP,” he says. “We don’t spend our energy trying to market ourselves… and not all of our schools look alike. There are distinguishers that make a Big Picture school a Big Picture school, but we let each campus respond to the needs of its community. We’re not about one-size-fits-all for kids, and we’re not about it for schools either.”

Another factor that explains Big Picture Learning’s absence from public dialogue is that the schools’ standardized test scores, though acceptable, tend not to be as uniformly high as those at charters like KIPP. In the 2008-09 year, 85 percent of the Met’s students were proficient in English and 55 percent were proficient in math. “We’re not known for our scores,” admitted Arthur Baraf, the principal at one of the Met’s six schools. He and his colleagues have been working to revise the Met’s approach to math, which has proven difficult to integrate into the school’s model.

When asked about the subject of standardized tests, Littky emits something between a growl and a sigh. “Could I do things to make our test scores go up? Yes. Do I believe that it’s worth it? No,” he says. “We have all kinds of data to show that our kids are thriving, and we’re doing as well or better than local schools.”

Littky is known for being particularly outspoken, but the fact remains that the philosophy of Big Picture Learning stands in opposition to the movement for high-stakes testing and universal standards. “We’re about standards, but not standardization,” Washor explains. “We don’t think it’s realistic or productive to ask all kids to follow the exact same curriculum.”

Washor’s comment gets at one of the most controversial aspects of the Big Picture Learning model: students do not graduate having followed the same curriculum or even having built the same across-the-board skills as their peers in traditional schools. Their education aligns them more with the professional world, where adults have deep expertise and facility in some areas and only perfunctory knowledge of others. This anti-uniformity, or what one teacher at the Met calls “productive chaos,” represents a radical revision of what education should mean — and a marked departure from the ideal that most schools around the country are striving to realize.

“I care way more that a student is excited to go deeper in her exploration of the history of women in her native country than I do about that student’s ability to answer every question on a standardized U.S. history test,” Littky writes in his book. “Who wants a standardized kid, anyway?”

For both its champions and its critics, the Big Picture Learning model raises important questions about the purposes of education. Which is more important — depth or breadth? Can an “equal” education look different for different students? What constitutes the “success” for which schools attempt to prepare their students? While there are no easy answers, these questions are a critical part of what the late reformer Ted Sizer called “the conversation that is reform.”

The only thing about which I feel certain, as I listen to Angela and Margi pouring their souls into their music, is that the Big Picture Learning model sets teenagers on fire in a way that few schools do. A cluster of students has gathered to listen and a few who know the composition mouth along with the refrain: “Slow Down/ What is life worth living for/ If you never get the chance to see what lies before you?”

Angela and Marginez and a few of the others linger in the recording studio after the performance, describing the process of composing the song and asking me about my job. “What are you writing about? Why did you become a journalist? How do you take notes so you don’t forget what people say? How do you like the Met?” Nobody is forcing these students to talk in turn or to ask probing questions; it comes as a natural outgrowth of their respect for each other and their curiosity about the world.

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