Classroom Work Will Be Minimal At New Magnet High School
August 8, 2005
By STEVEN GOODE, Courant Staff Writer
BLOOMFIELD - With no textbooks, final exams or report cards,
and classes just three days a week, the Big Picture School sounds
like a student's dream.
That dream is about to become a reality as the first school of its kind
in the state will welcome its first class of 33 freshmen at the end of
The magnet high school, which will gradually add more grades in the
next few years, is modeled after a successful program that started in
Providence 10 years ago and has grown to 24 schools across the country.
The program's philosophy is to educate "one student at a time" and
to create personalized educational programs. Students in Big Picture
programs choose semester-long internships that they participate in two
days each week.
"I'm ready for it," said Jaheida Chung, 14, of Bloomfield, who
wants to become a veterinarian. "This is going to help me prepare
for what I want to be."
The other three school days students meet with their advisers to discuss
their work, build a portfolio and work toward a semester-ending exhibit
detailing what they did and learned in their internships.
"We look at opportunities for kids to grow. We have a world to educate
kids in," said Dennis Littky, who co-founded the Metropolitan Regional
Career and Technical Center in Providence, known as the Met, in 1995.
The high school, which he directs, was the prototype for the Big Picture
School, which will draw students from Avon, Bloomfield, Canton, East Granby
At the Big Picture School, housed in a modern, two-story office building
on Griffin Road South in Bloomfield, students will begin the year by forming
a learning plan and goals to aid them in their internships. The learning
plans will include the use of scientific and mathematical reasoning to
help them progress in those subject areas, as well as communications and
social reasoning skills.
After about three weeks, the students will fan out around the Hartford
area to job shadow their prospective mentors and to pursue their interests,
which in this case range from forestry to acting in commercials.
"Everyone I've talked to said, `I wish they had this when I was in
high school,'" said Jennifer Marshall-Nealy, Big Picture's internship
coordinator, who has been working on forming a pool of mentors.
After the students have spent some time in their internships, they meet
with their mentors and teachers - who are called advisers - to develop
a project. On off days, they also meet with advisers to discuss progress
and problems, and to work on keeping things organized.
The project culminates with an exhibition at which students defend their
body of work through a presentation to teachers, family, mentors and fellow
Littky said he realizes the concept of keeping students out of the classroom,
having them be largely responsible for themselves for 40 percent of the
school year, is radically different from the kind of high school education
most people remember or envision.
"But it works," he said.
Of Met graduating classes from 2000 to 2004, 94.2 percent graduated, compared
to a state average of 81.3 percent.
The Met also boasts a college acceptance rate of 100 percent and an enrollment
rate of 80 percent, even as 75 percent of the students are the first in
their families to attend college.
Big Picture schools have the added support of the Bill and Melinda Gates
Foundation, which has committed $40 million to starting up dozens more
across the country.
Regardless of the impressive numbers and financial support, Bloomfield
Superintendent David Title was cautious in 2002, when he first heard about
the opportunity for Bloomfield to become involved.
"I had a hard time wrapping my arms around it," Title said. "This
is a school with no set curriculum. I've been doing curriculum for
Title said he and the other superintendents whose districts are participating
in the Bloomfield program kept brainstorming and working with then-Education
Commissioner Theodore Sergi, who was interested in high school reform,
to navigate the bureaucratic red tape associated with creating a magnet
"We all knew we had kids who needed a
different kind of thing," Title
said. "The traditional 'cells and bells' doesn't work for everyone."
Title said he was convinced the idea would work once he visited the Providence
campus and saw the academic rigor, student portfolios, accountability,
student presentations, audiences' critiques and teachers' dedication.
"I see this as part of a bigger movement to a more personalized education," he
The Big Picture School will have a slight variation from the model, according
to Patricia Hymes, the school's principal.
Hymes said students would spend about 90 minutes a day when they are on
campus working on math and science skills with the school's two teachers
in order to keep up with standardized testing requirements.
"The state is going to be looking very carefully at us and we want
to make sure we succeed," said Hymes, who began working toward opening
the school two years ago.
Edna Ortiz, who is sending her grandson Michael Rivera to the school,
said she has faith that Hymes and Big Picture will be successful.
"I believe this school is going to make a big difference for him," Ortiz
said. "It's a great idea."
The only drawback that Michael can envision is that he'll have to wear
dress clothes and leave the jeans at home when he participates in his engineering
"I'm not used to wearing church clothes all the time," he
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at