(Photo: Big Picture Learning)

Committed to learner-centered opportunities for young students

Big Picture Learning’s mission is to provide equitable learning inside and outside the classroom
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Since 1995, the principals and educators at nonprofit Big Picture Learning (BPL) have had a shared mission at the heart of their education community: redesign the way students learn by putting them at the center of their own learning.

Today, 27 years after starting their first school in Rhode Island, there are 81 schools in the Big Picture Learning network in the U.S., with another 100 around the world. The majority of these are high schools. Most of the U.S.-based schools are located at traditional in-district public schools. About 25% are public charter schools.

“For years, we’ve adopted the tagline ‘One student at a time’ – recognizing that each young person, each human is their own person and comes in with talents, passion, strengths, fears, and areas for continued growth,” says Carlos Moreno, co-executive director, Big Picture Learning.

Moreno explains, “What we try to do in our approach in this learner-centered design is to begin with the individual student and young person. What are some of their hopes? What are some of their challenges? Understanding context really matters. We spend a significant amount of time in our schools, establishing relationships with our young people.”

(Photo: Big Picture Learning)

According to BPL, its vision is to “catalyze vital changes in K-Adult education by generating and sustaining innovative, personalized learning environments that work in tandem with the real world of their greater community.”

Carlos Moreno, co-executive director, Big Picture Learning (Photo: Big Picture Learning)

As Moreno explains, learning happens outside the walls of the classroom through internships. “What are those things that they may be interested in, in learning more about, or perhaps pursuing a career?”

“When we’re thinking that far down the line, they go through this process of exploration. Not just in text. Not just in videos. But actually going outside of their school walls and being immersed in these spaces.”

The internships afford students more than practical experience, notes Moreno. “What we’ve seen is that the internship experiences that our young people have – help demystify what these places are. There are true humans that have similar interests as young people.”

He says the teens start creating a network. “The professionals in the workspaces end up being some of their biggest cheerleaders. It’s oftentimes that our young people find their first part-time to full-time employment with these spaces. They start building their resumes and their CVs at the age of 13 and 14. They can speak professionally and knowledgeably about work that happens in the spaces.”

‘I always feel welcomed at my school’

Sofia Ervin is a senior at SD Met High School in San Diego which practices Big Picture Learning. “I’ve been here for all four years [of high school]. We’re super small, super intimate. It’s a community, but it also feels like a family at the same time. I always feel represented at my school. I always feel welcomed at my school. There’s somebody there who cares about me at my school.”

There is a total of 112 students in the high school with 26 in Ervin’s senior class.

Sofia Ervin, senior, SD Met High School, San Diego (Photo Chris Jackson)

“We have a three-day week structure. For those three days, we’re doing our content classes like English, math, science, all the general requirements to graduate,” explains Ervin. “For those other two days, we actually leave and do internships. One of the main structures of Big Picture Learning is LTI –learning through interest. During that time, kids are out doing a wide spectrum of internships, trying new things, and building skills. It’s just so cool to see.”

As a freshman, Ervin’s first internship was with her art teacher from middle school. “He was one of my favorite teachers. He was my most memorable teacher. I was an art teacher assistant. I really love art in all forms of fine arts. I was helping teach because, at the time, I was curious about becoming an educator.”

Currently, Ervin is interning with a voter organizing group. Even though she isn’t yet old enough to vote, Ervin says, “I’ve never had experience in this before, so I’m learning so much. I am a firm believer in social justice, giving people voices, always speaking up – so I was really happy to join an organization that I’ve always admired.”

Access to College Classes

Ervin’s high school is located on the campus of San Diego Mesa College. She says, “It’s sort of expected that every Met student take a minimum of one [college] course. Of course, nothing is forced. We do have access to college courses. I’ve been taking them since ninth grade.”

She explains, “You take an introductory class called Personal Growth – around learning how to be a college student. Once you prove ‘I can handle being a college student on top of a high school student,’ then they release the whole catalog. It’s like, ‘Here’s our huge catalog of classes. Take whatever you’d like.’”

Looking ahead, Ervin plans to go to college with her top three choices being UC Berkeley, UCLA, and Pitzer College. She adds that she currently studies Japanese language and would like to study in Japan for a year. At this point, she plans to major in communications with a focus on entertainment.

Big Picture Led to a College Pathway for Adult Learners

Dennis Littky, the president of College Unbound in Providence, is also co-founder of Big Picture Learning and co-founder of the original Met High School in Rhode Island.

Littky founded College Unbound for adult learners 14 years ago and explains, “Big Picture incubated it until we got on our own. People say, ‘College isn’t for everybody’ – which I understand. But the real statement should be, ‘College, as we know it, is not for everybody.’”

Dennis Littky, president, College Unbound (Photo: College Unbound)

He explains the accredited model, “We said, because we could start from scratch, ‘What do adults need?’ They can’t be out every night. One night a week, adults – our students – are in a three-hour cohort with what we call lab faculty, an advisory. Then every eight weeks, short courses so they don’t get lost. They have two courses online.”

“Every student has to do a project, either a passion, their job. One man had just come out of prison and had kind of destroyed his neighborhood. His job was to buy a house and make it a community house for kids. So, when you take a sociology course or a statistics course, it’s not a random course. It’s connected to, ‘What does it tell you about your project?’”

College Unbound offers one degree – a bachelor’s degree in organization, leadership, and change. “What’s really important is they get a bachelor’s degree. People don’t really care what you get it in, unless you’re going into a particular field,” says Littky. “I think it’s close to 90% of our people, once they graduate, get a promotion in their job or a new job making more.”

(Photo: College Unbound)

Littky says students finish their degrees on average in two and a half years. “We give life experience credit. The first course you take is how to look back at your life and see how you can put your work in a portfolio. If you worked with kids with autism, you write that up and get credit for a special ed course. If someone comes in with an associate’s [degree] and use their past experience, they are out in a year, year and a half.”

College Unbound has expanded to Philadelphia and by year’s end, Littky plans to step down as president and transition to director of growth. “The plan was – learn how to do it here [in Providence], set up a financial model that could work, and start moving it around. From the beginning – find the good places.”

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