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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.

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