Co-founder and Director , The Big Picture Company
When Dennis "Doc" Littky took the stage at the first BIF Summit, barely a dry eye was left in the audience when he finished his story. Littky is the co-founder and director of Rhode Island's Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, more commonly known as The Met. The brainchild of Littky and his colleague Elliot Washor, The Met's innovative high-school educational model individually tailors curricula to a student's needs, interests and passions and then applies the academic learning at internships in the community.
Littky's students are typical kids with passion for life and distaste for school. Most have struggled for years in conventional classrooms. The story Littky shared that afternoon on the BIF-1 Summit stage was about a young girl who he characterized as a "holy terror" in middle school. When she arrived at the Met, she told Littky she wanted to study death. "I'm thinking I'm going to lose my job," he said. "I promote the benefits of no classrooms, but what are parents going to think if I allow this?"
Of course he did allow it and the young lady proceeded to spend the year in and out of funeral homes and cemeteries. She immersed herself in all aspects of the hereafter.
Students at The Met are evaluated through portfolio assessments and quarterly, dissertation-style defenses before a panel of teachers, parents, mentors and peers. When asked at the end of her oral presentation for the source of her intense interest in death, the young student shared the story of her early years growing up in Cambodia where both her parents and siblings were killed. "From the time I was a little kid, death was in my head 90% of the time," she said. "And now I finally have it out of my head."
The girl went on to graduate from the MET school, attend college and obtain a degree from Leslie College.
Imagine what kind of public high school in this country would tailor a curriculum around the topic of death? Imagine what would have happened to the girl without it?
True learning, Littky believes, takes place when each student is an active participant in his or her education, when a course of study is personalized by teachers, parents and mentors who know that student well, and when school-based learning is blended with outside experiences that heighten the student's interest.
Since The Met opened its doors in 1995, Littky and Washor created The Big Picture Company as the launching pad for what has now become a national education reform movement. Today, Big Picture has 72 such high-schools across the country.
Currently The Met serves 720 students in grades 9 through 12, primarily low-income Hispanic, African-American, white and Asian students. Their outcomes resemble those of affluent suburban communities. Virtually all Met School graduates go on to college.
But what kind of college do they go on to?
Enter College Unbound. "The time has come for Big Picture Learning to move forward—into postsecondary education," Littky explains. "The impersonal, lecture-based format of many traditional colleges simply hasn't been working for many underserved students."
Just as he did with the original Met School, Littky's plan for the college is to think big, start small and scale fast. "We kind of closed our eyes and said just like our first high-school, here's a chance to start from scratch. Rather than trying to tweak around the edges, let's figure out what's best for these young adults, what's the best environment that can help them learn," he says.
The curricula will emphasize students' interests, uniting personal motivation and discipline with seminars and real-world learning. Starting their freshman year, students will work in companies alongside mentors who will help them learn and understand what it is like to be entrepreneurial and the skills that go along with it. Groups of 15 students will live together and take part in team projects guided by a faculty advisor.
With a launch date of September, 2009, Littky says community support is vital to the college's success: "Colleges must change and we're ready to lead the way. We need outstanding businesses to bring our students on as interns and help them learn and grow. Lets join together to create the new college of the 21st century."