An Unconventional Culture
At a small New England college a long way from Athens, a pair of school reformers in homespun Grecian get-ups are firing up their followers to go for the gold.
"This is really an Olympic task," declares Dennis Littky, sporting a bedsheet, wreath, and torch. "What's really important is for us to understand how big this is."
With longtime collaborator Elliot Washor, Littky was kicking off "Big Bang III: Our Olympic Movement," a four-day gathering here for the public school educators that make up the Big Picture Co.'s extended professional family.
Part training conference and part party, the get-together Aug. 12-15 assembled staff members from all 24 schools using the innovative design that Littky and Washor pioneered in nearby Providence. Also among the 265 attendees were teams from a half-dozen schools planning to open in 2005 or 2006.
As the nonprofit Big Picture Co. seeks to scale up its design, its summertime "enculturation extravaganza," as one researcher has dubbed it, has become a means of forging unity in an increasingly far-flung network. Through workshops, games, and motivational speeches, staff members absorb more than just the how-tos of Big Picture's unconventional design. They are also constantly reminded of their role in establishing Big Picture's credibility, and in the push to bring new opportunities to low-income and minority youngsters.
"The biggest question all the time is how not to sell our soul," Littky tells principals during a session on how to navigate state standards, the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and college-admissions systems. "We're on the radical end of what we're doing. But if you sell out, you might as well not be doing a Big Picture school."
To reinforce the message, Littky wrote a book, being published this month, that lays out his philosophy of education and how it came alive in Providence. The Big Picture: Education is Everybody's Business, published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development in Alexandria, Va., aims to explain "why we're doing stuff" and "to give people another way to think about education," he says, as well as to be an inspiration for Big Picture educators.
Other scale-up tools Big Picture is counting on include computer and videoconferencing technology for sharing curriculum materials and conducting interactive, long-distance training sessions and meetings.
Big Picture leaders remain mindful of what Washor calls the need to "slow grow" their schools, preferably one grade at a time. Yet while their motto is "one student at a time," they don't have the luxury of opening schools at that rate. Under terms of scale-up grants they have received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, plans now call for the network to swell to 60 schools in the next four years.
"We're always fighting to get the quality and pace right," says Washor. Adds Littky: "I want to be proud of everything we've done."
Vol. 24, Issue 04, Page 39Published in Print: September 22, 2004, as An Unconventional Culture