School & District Management

‘One Student at a Time’

By Caroline Hendrie — September 21, 2004 9 min read
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Can The Big Picture Company stay true to its alternative vision for high school while 'scaling up' in new places?

Since signing on as a principal with The Big Picture Company, Jeff Park has started two schools from scratch in as many years. But to hear him tell it, that hasn’t been the most demanding challenge he’s faced. Even tougher has been trying to fit the nonprofit organization’s exceptionally student-centered vision into an accountability environment in which it can seem completely out of place.

In an era when performance on standardized tests is the coin of the realm, the small public high schools pioneered by Big Picture founders Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor offer a distinctly different vision of educational success. With a motto of “one student at a time,” their model eschews subject-based courses, tests, and letter grades in favor of in dividualized learning plans centered on community-based internships, independent projects, and exhibitions of students’ work.

The goal is not necessarily to get the schools’ mostly inner-city students to master a prescribed body of academic content. And progress is not measured primarily by standardized tests. Instead, the focus is on helping students acquire the motivation, skills, and personal qualities they will need for college and life, or as Littky puts it in a book coming out this month, “creating mindful learners.”

Selling this alternative vision has never been easy. Despite decades of experience as school reformers, Littky and Washor had to work like mules to secure a sturdy foothold for the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, a cluster of 120-student high schools in Providence, R.I., that they launched in 1996. And that was despite a policy and political environment there that proved unusually propitious, as well as Littky’s star status as the subject of a book and TV movie about his stormy tenure as a principal in a small New Hampshire town.

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An Unconventional Culture

Now that Littky and Washor have started to spread the “Met” model through Big Picture, based in Providence, the challenges are multiplying. With 24 Big Picture schools this year in 11 communities in six states—and many more in the works—principals like Park are finding that they have to strike a perilous balance.

On one hand, the educators trying to replicate the Met design are determined to build schools that hew to the vision of letting students build a customized curriculum based on their own “passions” and interests. On the other, they feel pressure to adapt the Met model in ways that Littky and Washor may view as “backsliding” toward the traditional mold. Both to survive politically and to meet the key Big Picture goal of getting their graduates into college, these newly minted school leaders are wrestling with how to stay true to Big Picture and still prepare students for do-or-die tests and for university-admissions systems that require sequences of content-oriented courses.

“What’s really challenging for a principal is, you have to understand what the Big Picture culture is and to create it and sustain it, while paying attention to these other incredibly important questions,” says Park. “If you can’t render to Caesar that which is due unto Caesar, you are done.”

As partners in starting up Skyland Community High School in the heart of Denver’s historically African-American community, neither Park nor his colleague Allen Smith quite realized what they were getting into.

For starters, wresting a charter from the district school board here was no mean feat. Then, just a few months after opening Skyland, Park took on the fresh challenge of founding another Big Picture school, this one a district-sponsored school in a neighboring suburb. From then on, the 36-year-old administrator worked to get Skyland through a shaky first year while planning for the second school.

Meanwhile, Smith, who was serving as Skyland’s student-internship coordinator, was tapped for the top spot at Skyland even though he had just returned to education after years in other fields. To prepare, he soon began shuttling to the Met in Rhode Island one week a month to shadow a principal there and soak up lessons directly from Littky and Washor. At the same time, he scrambled to earn a master’s degree in education back in Denver, while assuming more administrative duties at Skyland.

“It was grueling,” recalls Smith, 34, who grew up near Skyland before leaving town on a college scholarship to play basketball. “I killed myself last year.”

Still, neither Smith nor Park has regrets. Both believe they are building schools with a good shot at emulating the Met schools’ low dropout rates and high rates of college acceptance. But they are equally convinced that they need to do it their own way.

At Skyland, which expanded this year from 60 to 96 students, the staff is experimenting with adaptations to the Met model even as it seeks to establish a culture faithful to the original design. Much of that work is falling on the school’s six advisers, as Big Picture teachers are called, who are responsible for around 16 students each. Under the Big Picture model, advisers work with students one-on-one to develop learning plans each quarter, including two-day-a-week internships with adult mentors. They also monitor and assess students’ progress.

Among the top challenges faced by Big Picture is the constant tension between faithfully following the design and adapting it to circumstances.

Although Skyland’s students fared relatively well last school year on Colorado’s reading and writing tests, none of them passed the state’s 9th or 10th grade proficiency test in mathematics. So this year, the school has diverged from the Met’s no-required-courses design and set aside a minimum of half an hour each morning for “quantitative reasoning,” or QR, one of the five “learning goals” of the Big Picture design; the others are empirical reasoning, communication, social reasoning, and personal qualities.

“QR is more than math; it’s critical thinking and solving problems with reason and logic,” says Smith. “So we’ve been real deliberate and careful not to just say, ‘OK, it’s time for math class,’ because that’s not the mind-set we want the kids to be in.”

Still, Smith feels the school needs to bring students up to at least an Algebra 2 level before they graduate. Big Picture leaders, who acknowledge a networkwide weakness in developing students’ math skills, “have been supportive of helping us meet those goals,” he says.

Some of that support comes from Mari Ruddy, a Big Picture coach assigned to work with the two Denver-area schools as well as schools in Indianapolis and Detroit. (Big Picture schools are also up and running in Chicago and in the California communities of El Dorado, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego, and Santa Monica.)

“Mari is excellent about challenging us to make sure we are not backsliding toward traditional education,” says Amber Kim, a 28-year-old kickboxing enthusiast who is Skyland’s instructional coordinator and a 10th grade adviser. “But she also values us when we innovate.”

As the first week of the school year wound down last month, Kim bounced around her circle of students as they played a word game designed to build vocabulary. Afterward, she saw them out the door with words heard more often in families than in schools. “Bye, I love you,” she says. “Call me if you need me.”

Still, several students lingered. “I want to hang out with you,” one boy says, before she gently shoos him home.

Kim, a Teach For America veteran with a master’s degree in education, recalls being skeptical about the Big Picture model at first. “I thought it was fluffy,” she says. “I thought it was just the same old thing with urban kids: ‘We just have to love the kids. We don’t have to teach them math.’ ”

Her views evolved as she watched her own 9th graders’ growth last year. She is particularly proud of one boy with a learning disability who researched the propagation of plants in his internship at the city’s botanical garden. Though he is bright and loves science, his math skills were weak, she says, so she tutored him over the summer.

“This is why I’m a believer now,” Kim says, leafing through the boy’s portfolio of work.

Over the summer, Kim and another adviser worked on modifications to the Met model, including thematic units aimed at adding coherence to the limited class time they spend with their advisory groups as a whole. She also worked with an instructional specialist from the Colorado Small Schools Initiative, a project of the nonprofit, Denver-based Colorado Children’s Campaign, to create “rubrics” for Skyland that aim to align Big Picture’s learning goals with state standards.

A source of continuing support for Skyland, the small-schools initiative has been a partner with Big Picture in incubating the two Denver-area schools and has pushed the organization to communicate results in terms that mainstream educators can grasp. Like Big Picture itself, the initiative has received large grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation under the Seattle-based philanthropy’s push to scale up many types of small, personalized high schools.

“One of Big Picture’s challenges is that they’ve created a new language,” notes Van Schoales, the Colorado initiative’s executive director. “There’s a cost to that, in that sometimes things don’t easily translate to the policymakers and stakeholders who are approving charters and grants and those kinds of things.”

The stakes for Skyland are high this year, because the Denver school board will soon start weighing whether to renew its three-year charter. “After year two, the school’s going to need to demonstrate some value added on a variety of different indicators,” says Schoales. All in all, he adds, Skyland is doing “wonderfully” with what he considers “a fabulous model.”

Skyland Community High’s attendance rate of 94 percent should be a plus, but it remains to be seen if the school can survive without upping its math scores.

Given that reality, Park recalls feeling pulled between Schoales and Big Picture as he sought to foster a relaxed but purposeful climate at Skyland. The model emphasizes close relationships between advisers and students, and on cutting both enough slack so that students can discover their own paths to learning.

‘One of Big Picture’s challenges is that they’ve created a new language. ... [S]ometimes things don’t easily translate to the policymakers and stakeholders who are approving charters.’

“One of the biggest battles last year was this constant, ‘We need results, we need results, we needs results’ from Van, and me pushing back by saying, ‘Look, we are a new school,’ ” says Park. “His sense of urgency for results was matched by my sense of urgency about building culture.”

Among the top challenges faced by Big Picture—as with other education programs that try to “scale up” distinctive approaches—is the constant tension between faithfully following the design and adapting it to cir cumstances, says Joseph P. McDonald, a professor of education at New York University. As the principal investigator in a study of Big Picture’s scale-up, McDonald thinks the organization is responding quickly and inventively to what he calls “the challenge of managing the dilemma of fidelity and adaptation.”

Figuring out which elements of its design are “non-negotiable” is becoming ever more challenging as Big Picture scales up, says Ronald A. Wolk, the chairman of Big Picture’s board. Yet how the organization copes with that dilemma may determine how widespread its influence ultimately proves, he says.

“If the Big Picture wants to be puristic, and we want to have 60 schools, that’s fine, but probably that’s as far as it’s going to go,” says Wolk, who is also the chairman of the board of Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week. Either way, Wolk says, Big Picture is making important contributions to the knowledge base on how young people learn.

“Nobody is suggesting that every kid in America should go to a Big Picture school,” he says. “But there is a need for that kind of diversity ... not only for the kids, but also because we can learn from it.”


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