Charter school would focus on jobs
If you're lucky, as a teen you take a job or an internship that becomes an instructive watershed moment. You think you like baking, so you intern in a bakery and have to show up every day at 3 a.m. When it's over, you reflect: "I may not know yet what I want to do in life, but I know now that college is important, and that I don't want to be a baker."
Or you could find your heart's content and fall in love with the exotic hours, the scents, the experimentation, knowing that people look forward every day to what you create.
Around such experiences — trying a job, finding that you love it (or don't), and learning that doing any job well can be a tough proposition — has a school curriculum been built. About 30 people attended a Nov. 10 presentation/fundraiser in Atherton's Holbrook Palmer Pavilion for a new charter high school in the Sequoia Union High School District.
The charter would be modeled on Big Picture Learning, a network of some 100 charter high schools, with headquarters in Rhode Island and San Diego and offices in the Netherlands and Australia. Academic classes are a part of the program, but a principle focus is discovering what really interests students and crafting paths toward futures, whether academic or career-oriented.
If this school, tentatively called Sequoia Big Picture High School, is chartered and finds a home, ideally in Redwood City, the first year would comprise two classes of around 50 students each, eventually building to maybe 300 students, backers have said. The first priority is finding a principal, said steering committee member Charlene Margot.
Also on the committee are former Sequoia district board member Sally Stewart of Portola Valley, and education activist Karen Canty of Atherton. Former Sequoia Superintendent Pat Gemma is an occasional adviser, he said by phone.
The school would seek seventh- and eighth-graders who are disengaged and considered candidates for not graduating high school, Ms. Margot said. In other words, kids who don't swallow the idea of school hook, line and sinker? "Exactly," she said. "Square pegs in a round-hole pegboard. They're kids who don't fit the current model."
The curriculum would not exclude regular classes but does require internships driven by student initiative, with the help of advisers. One Big Picture graduate recently started at the University of Oxford after an internship with a University of California at Berkeley professor that grew out of the student's interest in mollusks, Big Picture co-founder Elliot Washor said in an interview.
The key is learning how to learn: by reading, by trial and error, and by asking for help, Mr. Washor said. A student may not need trigonometry, but it's important that she know how to get it, he said. Oral-exam-like sessions are not uncommon. "We look at each and every student probably more carefully that anybody else has done," Mr. Washor said.
He related the story of a Big Picture school in Camden, New Jersey, where, he said, the graduation rate in 2008 was 13 percent. The charter graduated 77 percent of its students in 2009 and 83 percent in 2010, he said.
"We get the same results in all the places that we're in," he added. "If it's hard, that's where we go. We're not looking for easy."
The key to a successful life is knowing how to advocate for yourself, Ms. Margot told the audience. "If you have a school that shows kids how to do that, you've got something."
Ms. Margot told the Almanac that steering committee members talked about the concepts behind this school with teachers in the Menlo Park and Las Lomitas elementary school districts. "They all said, 'We have kids that need this school,'" she said.
"We're doing something that's beyond just getting somebody a diploma," Mr. Washor told the audience. "The crime of school is not that you get an F and don't know (the material). It's that you get an A and don't know it. This is a big deal."