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Associated Press
by William Kates

LAFAYETTE, N.Y. – 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,” said 15-year-old freshman Katelin Reusswig. “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 across the United States 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. “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 co-operative relationship,” said Oppedisano – “Mr. O” to students.

The Big Picture Company 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-centred high school in Providence, R.I., 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 per cent 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 per cent of their students for post-secondary learning, said Damian Ewens, a Big Picture spokesman.

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 non-profit 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 per cent 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. For classrooms, the district converted office space at an elementary school, where the program will have room to grow. Each student gets a computer.

Although anyone can apply, the school is an attempt to attract students who are in danger of dropping out. “These kids were right on the edge. Most have failed at least one grade and given another year, several would have dropped out,” said principal Susan Osborn.

Ten of the Big Picture students are from the nearby Onondaga Indian Nation, including three of the four freshman girls. Katelin Reusswig is an Onondaga. Her three older siblings dropped out of school and she was ready to follow until she heard about the Big Picture school. She wants to run her own daycare centre.

“I like the idea of getting to shadow someone in the business while I’m getting an education,” she said.

Big Picture students divide their day with time for independent language studies, reading and work on a 45-minute exhibition they are required to give at the end of each 10-week semester. Time is also set aside for community work, writing in their journals and a social reasoning debate. In January, students will begin spending two days a week as unpaid apprentices at a job where they were responsible for setting up their own internships.

“There is more individual responsibility here … but it gives you confidence when you know you can do something for yourself,” said 15-year-old Nicole Bishop, who wants to have a career in photography or cosmetology – or maybe both.

To meet state requirements, students must pass five Regents exams before they graduate. This year, they will take the science and math exams, so each day of classes includes time preparing for the year-end tests. Students also have a daily physical education class. “There’s no homework in the traditional sense … though there will likely be times they will have to work at home because they were absent, need to meet a deadline or want to get ahead,” Oppedisano said.

At the end of the semester, students must cover everything they’ve learned through the period and deliver an oral presentation to classmates, parents and an evaluation panel of their choosing. Current students in the Lafayette program are interested in law enforcement, nursing, photography, music performance and underwater welding.

“I’m definitely more excited about learning now,” Nicole said. “I can see the value to what I’m doing.”
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By Elizabeth Doran
Staff writer
Post Standard, New York state

LaFayette Central is opening a new type of high school this fall, but it won’t be like anything students or their parents have ever seen before.

This school – which opens in September inside Grimshaw Elementary – has no homework, and there are no report cards, grades or class tests, except for Regents exams.

One instructor teaches every subject, and students design their own learning plan and set their own goals.

Students work at internships outside the school two days a week, and everyone who graduates is expected to apply and be accepted into at least one college.

One of just 50 similar schools in the U.S., LaFayette’s Big Picture-affiliated school will be the first to open in a small, rural setting. Most Big Picture schools are in large, urban districts.

“This will definitely offer a different high school experience than the traditional one,” said LaFayette Superintendent Peter Tigh. “What we like most about this concept is the philosophy of educating one student at a time.”

The school will open with 12 to 15 freshmen. Every year, another dozen or so freshmen will be admitted for a maximum of 60 students, said Big Picture Principal Susan Osborn. So far, 10 students have applied for acceptance; the deadline to apply is Aug. 23. There is no fee to attend the school.

Although anyone can apply, Tigh said the school is an attempt to attract and engage at-risk students who are in danger of dropping out.

“Why do we lose kids in high school?” he asked. “They become disenfranchised and disinterested in learning. We need to make it so they want to come to school.”

LaFayette graduated 59 seniors in June, but 14 others dropped out between their freshman and senior years, Tigh said. Its those kids Tigh hopes to target with this model.

In New York state, there is one other Big Picture school in the Bronx. The first Big Picture school opened in Providence, R.I., in 1995, and there are now about 7,500 students attending about 50 Big Picture schools, which have a 95 percent graduation rate.

The Providence school, known as The Met, has been a tremendous success and its strategies have proven effective, said Todd Flaherty, a former Rhode Island deputy education commissioner and senior adviser to the National High School Center, a non-profit that provides guidance and information on high school improvement.

“All schools are searching for what they’re doing here, which is the business of reaching and motivating kids to learn,” Flaherty said. “It’s personalized, but it’s also real world and contextual. Kids aren’t sitting in rows not understanding why they’re doing what they’re doing. They’re involved in learning something that interests them.”

The philosophy of teaching one student at a time gives kids a vested interest in coming to school, Tigh said. Although the school may seem unorthodox, the students will meet all New York state requirements, take the required Regents and go on to post-secondary school in many cases.

Research shows kids who are connected and who build strong relationships at school are more likely to graduate, said Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education, an initiative of the New York State School Boards Association.

“Making school and learning relevant is a proven strategy,” she said.

Big Picture schools have a history of success, and their focus on personalized learning and community involvement are key in retaining students, said Jamie Fasteau, director of policy for the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education, which advocates for at-risk students.

Tigh said LaFayette wants to reach out to students for whom a traditional school structure doesn’t work. In the Big Picture school:

  • Students create their own 10-week learning plan specifying their goals. For example, if the student is passionate about poetry, the student might pick five poets to study and poetry is incorporated into lessons that cover all the core subjects.
  • Parents are a key part of their child’s education, meeting four times a year with the student and an adviser to help plan the next 10-week learning plan. Advisers stay with the students throughout high school.
  • Instead of a grade or test, students present 45-minute exhibitions, or presentations, on what they’ve learned, and answer questions.
  • Two days a week starting probably in January, students are paired with a mentor and work at internships around the county. Before the internships start, students spend the fall learning appropriate dress for the workplace, how to make phone calls and what to expect at a job site.
“We really believe students will see a real purpose to their learning through this approach,” Osborn said.