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Meet Some of Highline Big Picture High School’s Students!

eHighlights from Highline Public Schools
October 5, 2010

Kym Garrison, a third-year student at Highline Big Picture High School, comes through the alley door into the kitchen of Flying Fish restaurant, one of Seattle’s most celebrated eateries. She pulls on a chef’s coat and apron. “What needs to be done?” she asks sous-chef Chris Gabel. Gabel sends her into the walk-in refrigerator for red peppers, cucumbers, parsley, and onion. When she returns, vegetables in hand, he demonstrates how he wants them chopped – in a small dice-then turns his attention to another task while Kym goes to work. Alongside her, other kitchen staff sharpen knives, trim beef ribs, and shape polenta cakes.

This is a typical school day for Kym. She spends every Tuesday and Thursday at her internship here, learning not just about culinary arts, but about teamwork, time management, and how to navigate in the adult workplace.

Internships are central at Big Picture, a high school that takes a radically different approach to learning. Part of a network of schools modeled after a program pioneered in Rhode Island, Big Picture operates on the premise that students learn better when they are engaged in something that interests them and when they help create their own learning plans.

“It’s really cool to get real world experience,” says second-year student Olivia McDonald, who interned last year at Starbucks headquarters in Seattle’s SoDo district. Working in the Global Facilities division, Olivia learned to create spreadsheets and worked with facilities management software that allowed her monitor repairs needed at any Starbucks outlet around the world.

First-year student Tyler Williams sits nervously in the back of the Big Picture van as it bumps along the road toward South Park and the pizzeria where he is going for an interview. This is the first step toward an internship. Tyler has already completed a few informational interviews, exploring different workplace settings looking for one that really grabs him. He’s interested in culinary arts, but also website design and animation.

Principal Jeff Petty glances in the rearview mirror. “Tyler, does this pizzeria have a website?” he asks. “That’s something you’ll want to find out if you intern here. Within a few weeks, you’ll want to figure out a project that will really benefit them.”

Big Picture internships are designed to challenge students to develop new skills and add value to their host sites. For her project at Starbucks, Olivia helped build a database for auditing invoices. Other students have assisted in veterinary surgeries, contributed to astronomy and biology research at the University of Washington, and prepared 3-D renderings for clients of major architectural firms.

In their internships, students often develop deep relationships with their hosts, or “mentors,” in the workplace. “It’s like family,” says Olivia of her mentors at Starbucks. “The mentors are kind of like your parents.”

“We love working with the young people!” says Starbucks accounting rep Kimberly Manthei, one of Olivia’s mentors. Kimberly’s workstation is decked out with photos of past Big Picture interns.

Strong relationships are a hallmark of Big Picture, both with mentors at internship sites and with school staff. Each student has one teacher, called an “advisor”, who stays with her all four years. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, advisors connect with each of their 17 students, guiding them through their individual learning plans. Because each learning plan is unique, students learn independently rather than in traditional classes. Every day, students have math – much of which is done through online programs- as well as reading and writing. Staff look for ways for students to learn academic content through their project work, with supplementary instruction to strengthen skills.

The flexible schedule helps Big Picture personalize instruction to the needs of each student. “One of the biggest challenges facing college students –and adults– is how to manage time and complete projects,” says Petty. “Rather than structuring a student’s entire day and taking that responsibility away from them, we give students a lot of leeway during independent work time, and we coach them on how to manage their time well.”

Unlike traditional high schools where credits are earned based on completion of semester-long courses, Big Picture students advance by showing what they know through “exhibitions” held three times a year in front of parents, advisors, and fellow students. Following each exhibition, the student, his parents and his advisor meet for a conference to review academic progress. Instead of earning letter grades, students are measured against the goals established in their learning plans. Big Picture is the only high school authorized by Washington’s state board of education to graduate students based on competencies demonstrated in this manner, as opposed to credits.

The goal is to get every student prepared to succeed in college or other post-high school training. Starting freshman year, students begin researching colleges. Over the next four years with the help of their advisors, students are continually preparing themselves to be competitive in the college admissions process.

Big Picture is open to any student in Highline through an application process. Kym Garrison and Olivia McDonald heard about it when Big Picture students came to talk their middle school classes. Mostly, the word about Big Picture is spread by word of mouth. “We have a lot of cousins and friends attending here,” says Petty.

Mandy Sybouts got turned on to Big Picture when a friend told her about “a really cool school more based on students than on curriculum handed down by a teacher.” In two years at a traditional high school, she had only earned one year’s worth of credits. Mandy was skipping a lot of school because of conflict with other students that left her feeling ostracized.

On her first day at Big Picture, she felt timid and scared. A staff member showed her to her class, and she was surprised to see that other students looked relaxed and happy to be there. “Right away, a girl said to me, ‘I like your shirt,’” says Mandy. She was taken aback by the girl’s friendliness. At lunch, Mandy got lost trying to find the cafeteria. A boy stopped her, asked where she was trying to go, and directed her to the lunchroom. Again, she was caught off guard. “People actually were helpful here and cared,” she says. “I thought, this might be different. This might be for me.”

First Mandy had to conquer her habit of skipping, and with a strong push from Big Picture staff she finally buckled down and got serious. She developed an internship with a teacher at her old high school. “I had to face the beast,” she says of her previous school conflicts, and it built her confidence tremendously. By her second year at Big Picture she was viewed as a role model and a leader. She will graduate this spring.

To graduate, every Big Picture student is expected to put together a post-high school plan; a senior thesis project that involves research, writing, and addressing a real problem in the community under the guidance of an outside mentor with related expertise; and an autobiography in which the student reflects on how his or her experiences have shaped them.

On district-wide student surveys, Big Picture students consistently say that school connects learning to the real world and prepares them for post-high school education.

“We try to do as much learning as possible through a student’s interests,” says Petty. “We prioritize connecting students with something they are passionate about so they are motivated to continue learning.”

Kym Garrison is a case in point. “Everyone loves me at Flying Fish,” she says. “I try to ask a lot of questions about everything.” After completing her internship, next fall she plans to enroll in the culinary arts program at South Seattle Community College through Running Start, a program that allows high school students to earn college credit. “I’d like to try to the baking curriculum,” says Kym, who will pursue a career as a chef.

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