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Dream education: One student at a time

By William Kates
Lafayette, New York (AP) 11-08

It sounds like a student’s dream school – no teachers, no homework, no tests, no grades.

Educators, too, say Lafayette’s Big Picture High School is a vision realized. For different reasons, though.

“This is how I ideally envisioned education,” said Leonardo Oppedisano, a former science teacher who is now adviser to the school’s first ninth grade class.

“This program is about helping a kid find their passion,” said Oppedisano – “Mr. O” to students. “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.”

The small farming community in upstate New York is among 60 nationwide to experiment with the Big Picture high school approach but just the second rural district to try it. Other than El Dorado, Calif., all other Big Picture schools are in larger, urban districts, said Damian Ewens, a Big Picture spokesman.

At Big Picture schools, students design their own learning plan and set their own goals with the help of parents and mentors. At Lafayette, one instructor – purposely called an adviser instead of a teacher – handles all the lessons and stays with the same class for four years until they graduate.

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

Big Picture schools emphasize work in the real world, portfolios, oral presentations and intense relationships between students and advisers.

“We really believe students will see a real purpose to their learning through this approach,” said Principal Susan Osborn.

The Big Picture Company was founded by educators Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, both formerly of the Thayer High School in New Hampshire and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. In 1996, they opened their first student-centered high school in Providence, R.I.

There are now about 7,500 students in 16 states attending 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, Ewens said.

The focus on personalized learning and community involvement are key in retaining students, said Elizabeth Schneider, vice president of state relations for the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education, which advocates for at-risk students.

“They (Big Picture schools) are just one of several different models out there that take this approach,” Schneider said. “But personalization is absolutely one of the key features of the highest performing programs ... tapping into what is relevant, interesting and engaging to the student.”

The Silent Epidemic summit held last year in Washington, D.C. reported that 80 percent of students who dropped out of school said they would have likely graduated if their schools had provided them with real-world learning opportunities, Schneider noted.

But Schneider acknowledged that some of the attributes that make such programs successful, also can be among the reasons they are not – having the same instructor for four years, giving students responsibility for their own learning goals, the lack of rigid routine and structure.

“We need multiple pathways. 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, Osborn said. The only other Big Picture school in New York is the Bronx Guild School.

There is no charge for attending the school, which operates from the school district general budget. The district is staffing the new school by reassigning teachers.

Although anyone can apply, the school is an attempt to attract at-risk 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,” Osborn said.

Last year, Lafayette graduated 59 seniors, but 14 others from the class of 2007 dropped out between their freshman and senior years, said Superintendent Peter Tigh, who arrived on the job last year and immediately began campaigning for a Big Picture school. Nationwide, about 1.2 million students drop out every year.

The district has about 500 students in grades 7 through 12, about a quarter of them are from the nearby Onondaga Indian Nation. Ten of the Big Picture students are Onondagas, including three of the four girls in the class.

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, Oppedisano said. There’s also time for brain energizer activities, community work, writing in their journals and a social reasoning debate.

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,” said Oppedisano.

The semester-end presentation must cover everything a student has learned through the period and is given 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.

“School is more interesting. I’m definitely more excited about learning now,” said 15-year-old Nicole Bishop, who wants to have a career in photography.

“It makes learning more real. I can see how this is preparing us for the real world,” added her friend Katelin Reusswig, also 15, who wants to run her own child care center.

Bishop and Reusswig said many of their friends think they have it easy at their new school.

“We do have more freedoms. But we also have more responsibility. And just because we aren’t getting report cards or tests, believe me we are working just as hard, even harder,” Reusswig said.

On the Net:

The Bronx Guild School:

National High School Center:

Big Picture School Company:

Alliance for Excellent Education: