Mon, Dec 22, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Big Picture schools focus on one student at a time

Individualized study programs, with a career focus, help keep marginal students in school

By William Kates  /  AP , LAFAYETTE, NEW YORK

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,” 15-year-old freshman Katelin Reusswig said. “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 nationwide 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.

FINDING A PASSION

“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 cooperative relationship,”’ said Oppedisano — “Mr. O” to students.

The Big Picture Co 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-centered high school in Providence, Rhode Island, 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 percent 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 percent of their students for post-secondary learning, said Damian Ewens, a Big Picture spokesman.

RETAINING STUDENTS

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 nonprofit 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 percent 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.

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