On Campus

Big Picture school lets students design own program

It sounds like a student’s dream school – no teachers, no homework, no grades

It sounds like a student’s dream school – no teachers, no homework, no weekly tests, no grades.At the Lafayette Big Picture High School students get to design their own learning plan, set their own goals and spend two days a week away from school – bending the ear of a mentor.

But far from a fantasy, the school is designed to better prepare kids on the edge for the real world.

“My friends hear that stuff and think we have it easy here,” said 15-year-old freshman Katelin Reusswig. “I tell them I’ve never worked as hard. It’s just different when you’re learning about something you’re actually interested in and care about.”

This small farming community in upstate New York is one of more than 60 across the United States to experiment with the Big Picture approach over the past decade but among the first rural districts to try it. The schools emphasize work in the real world – internships, portfolios, oral presentations and intense relationships between students, advisers and mentors.

At Lafayette, one instructor – called an adviser instead of a teacher – handles all the lessons and stays with the same class for four years until students graduate. Graduates are expected to apply and be accepted into at least one college, even if they choose not to go.

“This program is about helping a kid find their passion,” said Leonardo Oppedisano, a former science teacher who is now adviser to the first ninth-grade class.

“I am not a vessel with information trying to impart it all on them. I am advising them on the path that they should take toward learning. It is much more a co-operative relationship,” said Oppedisano – “Mr. O” to students.

The Big Picture Company was founded by educators Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, both formerly of the renowned Thayer High School in New Hampshire and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. In 1996, Littky and Washor opened their first student-centred high school in Providence, R.I., called The Met, which became a national model with its continuing success.

About 7,500 students in 17 states attend Big Picture schools, which boast a 92 per cent graduation rate – more than 20 percentage points higher than the New York state and national averages and nearly double the rate for inner city students – and send nearly 95 per cent of their students for post-secondary learning, said Damian Ewens, a Big Picture spokesman.

The focus on personalized learning and community involvement is key in retaining students – these approaches tap into what’s relevant and engaging to students, said Elizabeth Schneider, vice-president of state relations for the non-profit Alliance for Excellent Education, which advocates for troubled students.

Nationwide, about 1.2 million students drop out every year. Some studies suggest up to 80 per cent of dropouts might have stayed in school and graduated if their schools had provided them with real-world learning opportunities. “We have to recognize that the old-fashioned lecture-style classroom isn’t suited for every student,” Schneider said.

The Lafayette school opened in September with 15 freshmen. Every year, another group will be admitted for a maximum of 60 students. There is no charge for attending the school, which is staffed with teachers reassigned from the school district and operates from the district’s general budget.

For classrooms, the district converted office space at an elementary school, where the program will have room to grow. Each student gets a computer.

Although anyone can apply, the school is an attempt to attract students who are in danger of dropping out.

“These kids were right on the edge. Most have failed at least one grade and given another year, several would have dropped out,” said principal Susan Osborn.

Ten of the Big Picture students are from the nearby Onondaga Indian Nation, including three of the four freshman girls.

Katelin Reusswig is an Onondaga. Her three older siblings dropped out of school and she was ready to follow until she heard about the Big Picture school. She wants to run her own daycare centre.

“I like the idea of getting to shadow someone in the business while I’m getting an education,” she said.

Big Picture students divide their day with time for independent language studies, reading and work on a 45-minute exhibition they are required to give at the end of each 10-week semester. Time is also set aside for community work, writing in their journals and a social reasoning debate.

In January, students will begin spending two days a week as unpaid apprentices at a job where they were responsible for setting up their own internships.

“There is more individual responsibility here … but it gives you confidence when you know you can do something for yourself,” said 15-year-old Nicole Bishop, who wants to have a career in photography or cosmetology – or maybe both.

To meet state requirements, students must pass five Regents exams before they graduate. This year, they will take the science and math exams, so each day of classes includes time preparing for the year-end tests. Students also have a daily physical education class.

“There’s no homework in the traditional sense … though there will likely be times they will have to work at home because they were absent, need to meet a deadline or want to get ahead,” Oppedisano said.

At the end of the semester, students must cover everything they’ve learned through the period and deliver an oral presentation to classmates, parents and an evaluation panel of their choosing.

Current students in the Lafayette program are interested in law enforcement, nursing, photography, music performance and underwater welding.

“I’m definitely more excited about learning now,” Nicole said. “I can see the value to what I’m doing.”

– The Canadian Press

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