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Published in Print: April 28, 1999, as What's Up, Doc?

What's Up, Doc?

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Nearly a decade after a TV movie made him famous as the flamboyant principal 'Doc,' Dennis Littky has opened a school that customizes learning for its students.

Providence, R.I.

The first step, Priscilla Santana explains, is to calculate a person's volume.

"Suppose a person is actually a cube," she says, turning to a whiteboard propped up behind her and scribbling some formulas.

Santana, 15, is standing before a conference table at Rhode Island Rehabilitation, a private physical therapy clinic. A junior at an innovative alternative school here called the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, she has been interning at the clinic for the past several months. Tonight she's presenting to parents, teachers, and clinic staff members what she has learned about Watsu, an aquatic treatment.

More formulas: Mass equals density times volume, with the density of water 1 gram per cubic centimeter. Applying the force of gravity, Santana converts this mass to weight, given in newtons.

Before the internship, she confesses to her audience, "I didn't know there was this thing, newtons." But back at school, she and her "teacher-adviser," Rachel Brian, have spent hours, one-on-one, poring over a physics textbook.

"It might seem easy now"--in fact, it seems nothing of the kind--"but it was something hard for me to learn," Santana says after completing the calculations.

Thus ends the first day of quarterly student exhibitions for the Met, as Santana's school is usually called. Now in its third year, it offers an education that's not so much vocational as avocational.

Littky aims to prove that experience-based education and accountability are not incompatible.

Littky's co-conspirator in creating the Met was Elliot Washor, an old ally and former student. Washor had studied under Littky at SUNY in the 1970s. After several years as a carpenter, mason, and truck driver, he went to Harvard University's graduate school of education, then taught in New Hampshire. With Littky nearby in Winchester, Washor produced, with Littky as host, the TV show "Here, Thayer, and Everywhere," a program on exemplary educational practices that went out to hundreds of schools. The show won a Ford Foundation award for innovation in state and local government.

As the Met's co-principal, Washor is something of a foil to his friend. In contrast to Littky's coiled energy, Washor is soft-spoken, a bit stooped, and bookish-looking. But a broad Brooklyn accent gives away Washor's hard-earned street smarts. An only child whose working-class parents never went to college, Washor excelled in math and science but struggled with reading and writing. "I wrote backwards and upside down until I was in the 4th grade," he says.

Since its launch in 1996, the Met has hadthe feel of guerilla education. It operates out of classrooms borrowed from the University of Rhode Island college of continuing education, and the Met's name appears nowhere in the building directory. But with funds from a $29 million bond authorization passed by Rhode Island voters in 1994, Littky and Washor are constructing a nine-building educational complex consisting of an eight-acre campus, located in economically depressed South Providence, and several "satellite" schools scattered around the city. The Met will eventually grow to serve 900 students.

Yet even as the Met expands, Littky and Washor plan to keep the feel of a small school. No building will hold more than about 100 students, and advisories will remain in the 13- to 15-student range, even though the Met gets state funding of $8,000 per pupil, little more than the Rhode Island average spending of $7,800. "Our job is to motivate, cajole, inspire [students], then hook them up to resources," says Littky. "Most high schools have ratios of 1-to-13, 1-to-16, but classes of 25 or more. So we won't have a gym teacher, won't have a librarian, won't have a music teacher."

For Littky, the Met is a direct descendant of his New Hampshire experiment--and a chance to improve it. "We were as good as we could be," he says of Thayer. "We had a great adviser system, we had great parent involvement, we had teachers integrating the curriculum, we had kids out in apprenticeships. But it wasn't good enough. It wasn't strong enough to counteract some of the stuff [kids] come into school with. I really wanted to say how, if you had the chance to take every kid, one at a time, and really got into them and their passions and interests, could that be put into a structure that works? I thought back, and realized that the best work in all my schools was when kids got out and did stuff."

One place that's happening is the small storefront office of Concept Link Ltd., a 2-year-old company that does graphic design, Internet publishing, 3-D modeling, and computer animation for businesses. Chris Swepson fits in comfortably in this environment, far more so than at his junior high school in nearby Warwick.

"I didn't do too well there," says Swepson, 15, a quiet African-American youth with wire-rimmed glasses and peach fuzz on his upper lip and chin. "I was barely passing. I stopped liking school about that time. It was the first time I ever failed a class." Swepson chafed at the lack of opportunities to pursue his interest in computers. "There was nothing advanced in computers," he says. "They had typing classes, things like that."

By law, 75 percent of the Met's students must come from Providence. The remaining slots are open to students from anywhere in the small state. The school conducts interviews with student applicants, and parents must sign a contract in which they agree to attend the end-of-quarter exhibitions and otherwise help decide their child's learning plan.

Despite those restrictions, the Met's enrollment is typical of an urban high school. Roughly half the students are black or Hispanic, 37 percent live in homes where the principal language is not English, and 61 percent are poor enough to qualify for the federal free-lunch program. The school gets more than its share of students with one foot out the door as well as a handful of bright, highly motivated youngsters who are bored by traditional schooling. But the bulk of students who select the school over others in Providence are middling performers attracted by small scale, personal attention, and the chance to follow their interests.

Swepson enrolled at the Met last year and began his internship at Concept Link, just a few blocks away. "Chris has grown up a lot," says his mentor, Concept Link founder Tim Dahler. "He was real shy when he first started. He asks questions now, answers the phone, talks to customers."

While Swepson has found a home at Concept Link, junior Kyle Johnson has moved from one internship to another, making himself over at each stop. Last year, the lanky teenager had spiky green hair and wore torn jeans as he pursued his musical interests at a downtown club, the Met Cafe (no connection to the school), and AS220, an arts-and-performance space. This year he's at O. Ahlborg and Sons, the construction company that's building the first Met schoolhouse, and Johnson's hair is now cropped close to his skull.

"I treat him like everybody else here, like an adult," says Eric Ahlborg, Johnson's mentor at the company.

Not that Johnson has always acted the part. All freshman year, he breezed into the Met around 11 a.m. "We did everything," says Littky. "We used to call him from the school at 7 o'clock in the morning, but it didn't do any good." Now Kyle's mother, Tracy Taylor, drops him off at Littky's house on her way to work every morning at 6 a.m., and Kyle goes to school with his principal.

For his end-of-quarter exhibition--held in a trailer on the Met construction site--Johnson is neatly turned out in beige dress pants, striped shirt, and work boots. He presents one of his ongoing projects, a scale model of one of the new Met satellite schools, and displays his work to date: a cutout floor plan with cardboard sides. Johnson plans to consult with architects and staff members at the Rhode Island School of Design about how to improve his product. "I want to get this thing like mint," he says, "so Eric can use it for bidding, for more schools."

The core of his presentation is on lead contamination, which was discovered in the soil excavated at the Met site. His voice strains as he explains some of the details. "I was afraid I wouldn't say it right," he says afterward.

Taylor, a single mother, is proud of her son's performance. "It was really good compared to his first exhibition--you wanted to crawl under the table," she says. Taylor had a hard time accepting the Met methods at first, she admits--"no grades and that sort of thing." But now, she says, "the Met is the best thing that ever happened to him."

For all the talk about interests and passions, there's nothing easy about being at the Met, for students or teachers. The students' journals are sprinkled with anxiety--a side effect, perhaps, of taking responsibility for their own educations. Advisers, too, feel the stress of customizing educations for each of the 13 students in their advisories and taking full responsibility for each teenager's personal growth. "Part of me would like not to be reinventing the wheel in everything," adviser Chris Hempel, 31, acknowledges.

Each student's education plan may include one or more formal courses at nearby colleges, including Brown University. Met students are expected to take at least one college course before graduating, and nearly half the 11th graders are enrolled in one.

But the heart of the typical Met student's education plan is the internship. "I spend a huge portion of my time making sure the internships are fabulous," says Rachel Brian, 27.

Littky can't imagine why people don't see that the best way to organize education is one student at a time.

To supplement the academic content of the internships, students complete independent projects--like Kyle Johnson's cutout floor plan--related to their jobs. Advisers work mostly one-on-one with students on the projects, scrambling for materials, resources, and relevance--whatever their students need. They also face the difficult task of translating applied knowledge into academics--the reverse of the typical school dilemma.

When Chris Swepson first got his internship at Concept Link, his adviser, Amy Bayer, struggled to make sure the work satisfied his learning goals, not just his taste for software code. "He was using a lot of complex logic, but it was hard for me to pinpoint the math," Bayer says. The school's math consultant helped, and the Met recruited a volunteer tutor, who meets with Swepson weekly.

With students who have struggled through eight years of school before coming to the Met, even the basics can be daunting. Met teachers give workshops in math and writing, the two subjects that, not coincidentally, 10th graders are tested on statewide. One recent afternoon, Hempel and Charlie Plant, in his first teaching job after 25 years in the building trades, teach a low-level math workshop. Getting the class to derive the formula for the surface area of a rectangular solid is a tooth-pulling exercise. Using models made out of cardboard, students add up the seams, indulge in side conversations, and take on that glazed look that signals simultaneous bewilderment and boredom.

"Math has been a real struggle," says Hempel. "I don't think any school in the country is doing it well. We're dealing with a lot of kids that have been really turned off to math. It's a really hard attitude to change."

Workshops are the closest thing to direct classroom instruction at the Met, and they sometimes give rise to longings that sound distinctly un-Metlike. At a meeting that same afternoon, advisers vent their frustrations about the math lessons, some complaining about the lack of a curriculum. "We'll never have a curriculum," Littky interjects.

"But we're teaching classes," exclaims one adviser.

"Maybe that's the problem," Littky gently retorts.

The discussion scared Littky a bit. "I thought it might be backsliding," he says afterward. And to Littky and Washor, ever the guardians of the Met's vision, backsliding into traditional instruction is unacceptable, even if it's what the faculty instinctively thinks is needed.

But Met advisers respect the role that Washor and Littky play in protecting that vision. "You're seeing some of the struggles that go on," Hempel explains. "We're so quick to fill in this [need] with a workshop," he says. "By the time you turn around, you're taking a traditional approach. But that traditional approach is not what the real world is about."

"High standards" is a phrase that's invoked often at the Met. Littky pushes high standards in the work that bulges out of student-portfolio binders. And he pushes high standards in the education and life goals that students set for themselves. "In two years, when [the critics] see our kids in college, they'll really see," says Littky.

Despite his unorthodox methods, Littky's doing everything he can to get them there. SAT prep is as big at the Met as in any suburban high school, and the school is working on a "transcript" that will convert its learning goals into something colleges can decipher. Most shrewdly, Littky hired a guidance counselor who was retiring from the Mary C. Wheeler School--a private school with Rhode Island's highest college-placement rate--to help the Met's college applicants get a serious look from admissions officers.

But testing remains a challenge. Littky and Washor are acutely aware of the need to show some results on statewide math and reading/writing assessments, but that's not easy when students show up on the Met's doorstep several grades behind in skills, then get tested before the end of their second year. The first class of Met sophomores to take those tests, last spring, did only slightly better than Providence students overall and somewhat worse than statewide averages. (In part to get students sooner, Washor and Littky have applied to open a K-8 charter school in Providence.)

Still, there's evidence of success. In 1996-97, the Met administered the Metropolitan Achievement Test to its first entering class in the fall and then again in the following spring. That second testing showed an increase in mean grade level from 6.8 to 8.2 in reading and from 6.5 to 8.4 in math. Also in that first year, average daily attendance was 95 percent, compared with 72 percent in Providence high schools overall.

Adria Steinberg of Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit group, tracked five students over the course of a year at the Met for a report to the Brown Regional Education Lab. "The most striking thing was the increasing degree of focus on school and learning," says Steinberg. "Seeing them develop their own internal standards for quality of work just knocked me out. It's so unusual to hear kids talking that way."

The Met's founders are pinning their hopes on long-term outcomes, rather than an immediate bump in test scores. A nonprofit group that Littky and Washor have launched, the Big Picture Co., will document the Met experience and spread the word about its brand of learning. A Harvard education school postdoctoral fellow also is working to develop assessment tools that will measure the kinds of success Littky and Washor are looking for: finishing (not just entering) college, leading useful and satisfying careers, learning to love--and learning how to acquire--learning. "They say knowledge is power," says Washor. "We say the use of knowledge is power."

But the idea of force-feeding students with a single, rigidly defined body of knowledge is anathema to Littky. "I'm an extremist in believing that there is no one content for every kid. Photosynthesis may be very important for you, but it ain't for me right now."

It's here that the Met has drawn some fire. "The piece of theirs that caused me great hesitation is the lack of defined standards," says Marcia Reback, the president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals. "I believe there are some immutables kids may not be passionate about, but we are obligated to provide. Standards shouldn't be accidental."

But Littky can't imagine why people don't see that the best way to organize education is one student at a time. "People don't learn when you lecture to them. People don't learn facts that are disconnected. People learn when they construct knowledge, when they're passionate about something.

"So we know all that and do the opposite. People will say, 'Yes, I agree; yes, I agree--but what about physics?' Drives me crazy."

Littky wants to show them students like Priscilla Santana. Santana came to the Met with no record of distinction as a student and no burning passions. She selected the Met almost on a whim--"I wanted to be with my friend," she says. Her highest ambition was to be a secretary. But two years ago, her first internship gave her clerical experience in a child-health clinic, where she was also involved in a research study. Then her mother, who speaks little English, developed carpal tunnel syndrome, requiring surgery and physical therapy. Intrigued by the exercises her mother was prescribed, Santana interned with a physical therapist last year and another one this year, each time with her academic study orchestrated through related projects.

Last fall, she took an introductory physical therapy class at Community College of Rhode Island, and this spring she's taking a more demanding course on human anatomy. And she's studying surface tension, hydrostatic pressures, and other properties of force and matter--that's right, physics--with adviser Rachel Brian. "I never expected I'd learn physics from Watsu," says Santana. Or any other way, for that matter. "If I were in a class I could never do it. I'd be stuck. There would be nothing to apply it to."

That's the way it is with the Met and its internships, she says. "You always learn more than you expect."

Robert Keough is a free-lance writer who lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. He writes regularly for the Boston Globe Magazine and CommonWealth, a quarterly journal of government and civic issues in Massachusetts. His e-mail address is bkeough@aol.com.

Vol. 18, Issue 33, Pages 26-31

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