What’s Up, Doc?

By Robert Keough — April 01, 1999 23 min read
Nearly a decade after a TV movie made him famous as the hippie principal ‘Doc,’ Dennis Littky has opened a school that customizes learning for kids.

It’s 8 p.m. on a winter evening, and Priscilla Santana is standing before a conference table at Rhode Island Rehabilitation, a private physical therapy clinic. Priscilla, a student at an innovative alternative high school in Providence, has been interning at the clinic for the past several months, and tonight she’s presenting to parents, teachers, and clinic staff what she has learned about Watsu, an aquatic treatment.

Turning to a whiteboard that’s propped up behind her, she scribbles formulas, calculating buoyancy. “First we need the volume of a person,” she begins. “Suppose a person is actually a cube.” She estimates linear dimensions of a five-foot, six-inch woman, converting them to metric units. Invoking Archimedes, Priscilla explains that the floating patient “will displace her own volume” of water. More formulas: mass equals density times volume, with the density of water one gram per cubic centimeter. Applying the force of gravity, she converts this mass to weight, given in newtons.

Before the internship, Priscilla 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 two formula-laden chapters from a textbook, Physics the Easy Way.

At the whiteboard again, Priscilla converts the hypothetical patient’s 140-pound weight to newtons and subtracts the weight of the displaced water. The difference, she says, represents “how much less the person weighs in the water.” She stops short of converting the newtons back to pounds. She’s exhausted, mathematically speaking. “It might seem easy now"-in fact, it seems nothing of the kind-"but it was something hard for me to learn.”

Thus ends the first day of quarterly student exhibitions for the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, an experimental school now in its third year. Formally created as a regional vo-tech school-an accident of history, more than anything else-the Met, as it’s called, offers an education that’s not so much vocational as avocational.

At a time when most schools and school systems are consumed by content-as determined by curriculum standards in a range of subjects-the Met looks to customize education for each of its 160 students. Rather than measuring achievement by grades and test scores, the Met seeks validation in real-world performance and post-graduation success. All learning is organized around each student’s “passions and interests,” in the Met mantra, and much of it takes place outside the classroom in two-day-a-week internships. Teachers are called advisers and don’t teach classes in the traditional sense. Instead, they work with students-mostly one on one-to supplement the internships with tailored academic work. The only formal classes that students take are college courses on nearby campuses. And aside from required state wide exams, there are no tests; assessment is done through portfolios, project exhibitions, and narrative evaluations composed by the students and their teachers.

The Met epitomizes the interest-based learning that kids thrive on, says Larry Rosenstock, a pioneer in internship- and project-based education and a former executive director of the Rindge School of Technical Arts in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The disengagement of youth from traditional schooling is legion,” he says. “Adolescent antennae are well-tuned to pick up contrivance.”

But child-centeredness makes the Met something of a throwback, reminiscent of the do-your-own-thing ‘60s. And to the boosters of content-rich curriculum standards, its approach seems out of step with what’s needed in the ‘90s. “It’s the usual progressive shtick,” says Chester Finn Jr., a federal education official in the Reagan administration. “Relevance education, experiential education, individualized education. I don’t believe it will work, or it might for some kids. But let [them] try it.”

It’s no accident that the man behind the Met, the educator stirring the pot in this debate, is Dennis Littky. A flamboyant school leader, Littky has a national reputation both for innovation and for getting into hot water nearly everywhere he goes. The most famous of his turbulent tenures was made into a book and an NBC movie of the week. Both tell the story of the “hippie principal” who was nearly ousted by his rural New Hampshire school board even as he turned the local high school into a nationally acclaimed institution.

In the Met, Littky is expanding on what he did in New Hampshire. The school, he believes, may be just the place to prove that the “progressive shtick” of personalized, experience-based education is not incompatible with rigor, structure and, above all, accountability. He and his co-principal, Elliot Washor, are so confident of success that they have launched a nonprofit group, the Big Picture Co., to document and disseminate their work. Indeed, what worries them most is not that the Met will fail in its educational mission, but that it will turn into, well, a regular school.

One Monday in December, Littky stands before his students, showing off a new toy. The Met begins each week with a whole-school assembly called a “pick-me-up” before breaking into “advisories,” groups of 13 students and a teacher, to plan the week. Today, Littky, whom students call “Doc,” has brought to the assembly a hep-cat Santa doll, complete with guitar and dark glasses. With a flip of the switch, Santa growls “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” to a stop-time blues riff. The kids crack up.

Without a doubt, Littky is a character. His beard, once coppery but now nearly snow-white, is not as bushy as it was in New Hampshire, but it still suggests a certain wildness. His wardrobe runs to plaid shirts, faded black jeans, and hiking boots. Two walls of his office are festooned with hats, including several African caps that are Littky’s preferred method for covering his bald head. When he talks, which is pretty much all the time, his speech is liberally punctuated with the word “man.” The 54-year-old Littky rises before dawn to run-except for Mondays, when he practices Tai Chi-and spends most of the day on his feet.

The Met is Littky’s third school of note, if not notoriety. His enemies-and he’s had them wherever he’s gone-see Littky as a grandstander and a publicity hound, as well as an educational radical. In 1972, he was 28 and training new teachers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook when he became principal of the new Shoreham Wading Middle School, an open-classroom building-ideal for interdisciplinary study, Littky thought. Before the school even opened, however, Littky had to fight off a conservative cabal that called for his dismissal, slamming his concepts and his credentials. (Though he had a Ph.D. in education and psychology from the University of Michigan, his certification as a principal was still pending.)

In 1978, Littky sought respite in an unheated cabin with no running water deep in the New Hampshire woods near the blue-collar town of Winchester. But within three years, he became principal of the local high school, taming an angry and discouraged student body with advisories and internships. In 13 years at Thayer High, he turned the school into a national model, the first to be invited to join the Coalition of Essential Schools, the reform network created by educator and writer Ted Sizer. But Littky’s casual clothes and informal curriculum didn’t sit well with some traditionalists in town, and Littky narrowly survived a move to oust him in 1985. The battle became the focus of the 1989 book Doc , which NBC later turned into the movie A Town Torn Apart .

“He’s a remarkable man,” says Sizer. “He’s a very good kid person. He’s got great radar. He’s also very tough with them. The hats, the games, they’re just part of it. You do something that doesn’t fit, and he’s all over you. [His critics] don’t understand this.”

Upon leaving Thayer in 1994, Littky again tried to remove himself from the fray, joining the Providence-based Annenberg Institute for School Reform, where Sizer was also affiliated. But soon, Littky found a compelling reason to descend from the ivory tower. A review panel of educators and business leaders had proposed an overhaul of the state’s vocational schools. The first step was revamping the Davies Career and Technical Center, in Lincoln, as a high-quality job-training school, with a business-dominated board and partnerships with companies like chemical giant DuPont. But for a second vocational center for Providence high schoolers, state Commissioner of Education Peter McWalters didn’t want to repeat himself. “To his enormous credit,” says Sizer, who advised McWalters and the Rhode Island Board of Regents during this period, “instead of making a clone of existing schools, he said, ‘Let’s do something different.’”

Of course, doing something different appealed to Littky. So he pitched his vision of the Met to McWalters. Students would get a good grounding in the state’s standards and pass its assessments, Littky promised, but they wouldn’t sit through the traditional seven periods a day.

The idea intrigued the commissioner. A former social studies teacher and superintendent in Rochester, New York, he had taught in an alternative junior high school in the 1970s-a school with internships, interdisciplinary projects, and other Met-like attributes that had met the fate of most experimental schools of that era. “It backed itself into looking conventional within 10 years,” explains McWalters.

A flamboyant school leader, Littky has a national reputation both for innovation and for getting into hot water nearly everywhere he goes.

A compact man who matches Littky’s energy joule for joule, McWalters saw in the vision of the “hippie principal” a chance to test whether experience-based education can meet the ‘90s demands for rigor and accountability. The idea had its critics, but McWalters shepherded it through the legislature, at no small risk to his own authority. “I’m Dennis’ sponsor, no doubt about it,” he admits.

Littky’s co-conspirator in creating the Met was Elliot Washor, an old ally and former student. Washor had studied under Littky at Stony Brook in the 1970s. After several years as a carpenter, mason, and truck driver, he went to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, then taught in New Hampshire. With Littky nearby in Winchester, and Washor starting to consult on technology and central-office issues, the two began working together. 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. When Littky moved to the Annenberg Institute, Washor went with him.

As the Met’s co-principal, Washor is something of a foil to his friend. In contrast to Littky’s coiled energy, he is soft-spoken, a bit stooped, and bookish-looking. “Elliot is not the theatrical kind of person Dennis is,” says Sizer. “They complement each other.”

But a broad Brooklyn accent gives away Washor’s hard-earned street smarts. The only child of working-class parents who never went to college, Washor excelled in math and science but struggled with reading and writing. “I wrote backward and upside down until I was in the 4th grade,” he says.

Together, Littky and Washor are building something of an educational empire. Since its launch in 1996, the Met has had the feel of guerilla education. It operates out of classrooms borrowed from the University of Rhode Island, 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 across 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 [kids], then hook them up to resources,” says Littky. 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.”

The small storefront office of Concept Link Ltd. is buzzing in a low-key, computer-centric sort of way. The two-year-old company does graphic design, Internet publishing, 3D modeling, and computer animation for business clients. In this environment, 15-year-old Chris Swepson fits in far more comfortably than he did in his junior high in nearby Warwick.

“I didn’t do too well there,” says Chris, a quiet African American boy with wire-rimmed glasses and adolescent 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.” Chris 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 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 these restrictions, the Met’s enrollment is still 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. It gets more than its share of students with one foot out the door as well as a handful of bright, highly motivated kids 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.

Chris 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.” In Dahler, Chris has found not only a mentor but a kindred spirit. “He and Tim are organized, and disorganized, pretty much similarly,” says Syed Askari, Dahler’s business partner.

While Chris 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 teen had spiky green hair and wore torn jeans as he pursued his musical interests at a downtown club, the Met Café (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 Kyle’s hair is now cropped close to his skull. “I treat him like everybody else here, like an adult,” says mentor Eric Ahlborg.

Not that he’s always acted the part. All freshman year Kyle 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 at 6 a.m. on her way to work, and Kyle goes to school with his principal every morning.

It’s an unusual arrangement, but hardly out of character for Littky. In New Hampshire, he offered two kids $100 to swear off drinking for two months, paying off in a thick wad of singles when they did.

For his end-of-quarter exhibition-held in a trailer on the Met construction site-Kyle is neatly turned out in beige dress pants, striped shirt, and work boots. As part of his presentation, Kyle talks about one of his ongoing projects, a scale model of one of the new Met satellite schools, and he displays his work to date: a cut-out floor plan with cardboard sides. Kyle plans to consult with architects and staff 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 describes how lead absorbs iron and oxygen in the bloodstream. “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. Student 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 teen’s personal growth. “Part of me would like not to be reinventing the wheel in everything,” admits adviser Chris Hempel, 31.

Students would get a good grounding in the state’s standards and pass its assessments, Littky promised, but they wouldn’t sit through the traditional seven periods a day.

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

But the heart of the typical Met student’s education plan is the internship. Advisers help structure the students’ off-campus work and preside over negotiations between school, student, worksite mentor, and parents as to what each kid’s education will entail. “I spend a huge portion of my time making sure the internships are fabulous,” says Rachel Brian, 27.

To supplement the academic content of the internships, students complete independent projects-like Kyle’s cut-out floor plan-related to their job. Advisers work mostly one on one with students on these 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,” says Bayer. The school’s math consultant helped, and the school recruited a volunteer tutor, who meets with Chris 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 afternoon in December, 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 struggle. 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 is unacceptable, even if the faculty instinctively thinks traditional instruction is needed.

But Met advisers respect the role that Washor and Littky play as sentinels of the school’s 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 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 the Metlearning 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 the state’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 reach 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 to 72 percent in Providence high schools overall. Absences totaled 410, compared to 948 for those same 52 kids in their old schools the year before. Adria Steinberg, of Boston-based Jobs for the Future, 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 really pinning their hopes on long-term outcomes, rather than an immediate bump in test scores. The 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 tools to measure the kind of success Littky and Washor are looking for: finishing (not just entering) college, leading useful and satisfying careers, learning to love 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 rigidly defined body of knowledge is anathema to Littky. “I’m an extremist in believing that there is no one content for every kid. Photo synthesis 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, 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 Dennis Littky can’t imagine why people don’t see that the best way to organize education is one student at a time. “To me it’s just logical. It just makes sense. 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. Priscilla 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 therapeutic exercises she helped her mother with, Priscilla interned with a physical therapist last year and another one this year, each time with academic study orchestrated through related projects.

Last fall, the 15-year-old 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-in the therapy pool and with adviser Rachel Brian.

“I never expected I’d learn physics from Watsu,” says Priscilla. 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.”