Sara Leonard
Big Picture Learning is learning for the real world
TEDxSanDiego 2017

1.2 million students drop out of high school every year in the United States. In the time that I am standing on this stage, 28 students will drop out of high school. In San Diego, 1 student every 3 hours is dropping out of school. There have been numerous attempts to remedy these horrific numbers, to not much avail. Initiatives like No Child Left Behind Act, Every Student Succeeds Act, Common Core Standards, project based learning, stem programs, steam programs, magnet schools, charter schools – the list is endless.

No more impressive is our college completion rate. Less than 60 percent of students are actually graduating from college. More terrifying than that, is the amount of student loan debt that our students are incurring – 1.3 trillion dollars, and this with 40 percent not even graduating from college. There’s a lot of talk and attention around education reform. That’s the buzz. The bottom line is education needs to be reinvented – not fixed, not tweaked, not polished. We need to revisit our school system on a national level, and modernize it.

There are programs out there that are doing innovative and wonderful, amazing things. The only problem is that most of these schools reach too few students, and the traditional school system is only allowing for such a small percentage of students to be highly successful. This leaves the majority of our kids either falling between the cracks, dropping out, or just gliding through school like a maze that they finish and get drop kicked into the real world, ready or not. Some are ready. Many are not.

I knew this as a parent, I knew this when I was a student, and I knew this when I became an educator. I actually got to live and be part of change when I became the principal of the San Diego Met. The Met is a local high school. It’s here on the Mesa College campus nearby and they are a part of the Big Picture Learning Network of Schools. The Big Picture was founded in 1995 by Elliot Washer and Dennis Littky.

This is an organization that gets it, and they’ve been getting it for 22 years. They were approached by the governor and asked to do something in Providence because they had an education crisis. Dropouts. Gangs. Violence. Their community was hurting and in trouble. By 2001 they had the attention of Bill and Melinda Gates, who gave them a generous grant and said replicate this school nationwide. They were getting kids off the streets, away from the drugs and the gangs.

They had kids in internships, and attending school, and going to college, and graduating, and getting amazing and great careers. Big Picture is one student at a time, and these guys created a model that now has 130 schools. There are 60 in the United States and 70 internationally. San Diego Met opened as part of that expansion in 2004. Last year I was at an event with my student body president. She was a senior in high school, and she referred to her school as a group of misfits.

We have kids who are shy and awkward. Others are gifted and talented and brilliant. We have kids who live in extreme poverty. We have students who have problems with addiction. Other students are trying to figure out their sexual identity. We have kids who’ve had brushes with the law. We have kids who are first generation college hopefuls. Some are going to be the first in their family to ever graduate from high school.

But, she also pointed out that our community, our school, our culture is kind. We don’t tolerate one another for being different. We celebrate that there’s this unique and amazing wonderfulness in each and every one of us. Big Picture schools are for everybody. We want the kids that other schools don’t want. It doesn’t matter if they have money, or parents who have influence, or an academic gift, or athletic ability – we are going to take the kids that no other school wants, or other schools are unprepared for. Everybody is welcome in the Met and Big Picture schools.

So what is it that makes people fly from all around the world, and they come into our classrooms and our schools? They want to talk to our teachers and students, and find out what it is that we are doing that is working. When we respect youth as individuals, as young adults, not just teenagers to be dealt with, by entrusting them with opportunities to get involved in their communities. And we give them agency to make choices around their own learning goals. They don’t disappoint.

Our students have dreams and goals. They just need assistance to achieve them, adults who rally behind them, and a system that supports them to grow and explore. They need to know that failure is an acceptable option. It is a part of finding that path to greatness, not a grade to be feared in the grade book. Big picture schools are all unique because they are able to be customized for the communities we serve. Every city, state, and nation has different communities of learners and different needs in their cities and their areas of residence.

Big Picture schools are personalized around the needs of those students and communities. There are key distinguishers that we all use and they are part of the foundation for our schools. And this is how we find our success and help our students to be successful. A really big piece of this foundation is what we call the advisory structure. Advisory is like this home base, Grand Central Station for students for all 4 years of their high school. There is one teacher with 20 or fewer students that they are going to teach, and nurture, and support for all 4 years of their high school.

Talk about getting to know your kid’s teachers. They get to personalize the curriculum for each student.They work one on one and in small groups, and they are customizing the assignments, and the research, and the internships that these kids are going to have based on their own passions, and their interests, and what they think they want to do in their future. Parents are invited into the classroom, and they sit side by side with teachers and community members, and they get to formally assess and give input on what they see in their child’s learning.

We had a thousand business partners in the last four years open their doors to our kids. Two days a week, every Tuesday and Thursday, our entire school is placed in internships around our community, working side by side with mentors who are nurturing them and being the classroom outside of school. These kids have resumes, and real world skills, and work experience, and relationships that go beyond the typical school day.

Mesa College gives our kid’s free college classes starting in the 10th grade. By 11th and 12th grade when our students leave, they have a year, sometimes more, of college completed, fully transferable to a university. They have four years of valuable, meaningful work experience and they’ve explored enough that they know what their options are, and they have a really clear set goal for what their future path is going to be.

So these distinguishers all work together, and they combine and they weave, and it allows for that personalization of the kid’s education. At the end of the day we want our kids to have skills and competencies, not memorize facts, or read another novel, to take a test, and they’re going to forget all the information later. Real world connections are what make the kids care about their learning.

There is a saying that hurt people hurt people. In big picture schools we get to see the opposite of this come true. Respected individuals, respect individuals. I had a student transfer in November of his 11th grade year. He had been kicked out of numerous schools and expelled from two different school districts. I met with him and his father and I said, “Welcome, come to my school, I want you here. Whatever happened in your past is a blip on the radar of your life. You have the chance to define the you that you want to be.”

We talked about his goals, and his dreams, and his hopes, and we put together an action plan so that he could graduate on time. He had to work really hard, and he still had personal obstacles to overcome, but I told him, “I trust you.” And then I stepped back, and I got out of his way, and I let him make the decisions around his own learning so that he could have a good and productive future.

He graduated on time, his mentor hired him out of his internship, and he worked for a year saving money, then the company gave him a scholarship, and he started in community college. This is a kid who had doors slammed in his face. Educators tell him it was too late for him. People who should have been supporting him were not believing in him.

I had another student attempt to take her own life at school. I watched her leave in the back of an ambulance with my heart ripping out of my chest. We gave her more than a diploma and high school education. We nurtured her whole being. We helped her discover and explore her own passions, her own interests. We helped her find her skills and her talents and gifts. Four years later she was standing by my side speaking at a fundraiser in San Francisco, talking about the importance of raising money so that we could have mental health education in schools.

She found that she had strength, and a really strong voice to help others. She graduated on the honor roll and is attending a university. Big Picture allows for every student to have a path to their future. And these are just two very brief examples of what it looks like when we keep that end goal in mind. We have to get it right for kids.

This whole philosophy and principle doesn’t only have to apply in schools though. And my challenge would be to think about your workplace. Until we get it right in the schools, how could your community, or your classroom, or your office become a center for learning for other people. Can you start a certification program. Are there needs in your industry that aren’t being met.

Open your doors. Set up internal job shadows or mentors within your own organizations ,and develop a future workforce from within. Host a student for a semester internship, or go speak at career days and talk about the needs of your industry and the educational path to get there. There is a lot of work to still be done.

Big Picture Learning I can’t say is one of the only successful models, but it is working. They have a philosophy that has been impacting students lives, one student at a time, for over 22 years. It is time for us to redefine what success looks like. We need to design school systems that really and truly enable every single individual child to come into their full, great potential. Success is different for every single person and it must, must be revered as such.