Over the past few decades, parents have been vocal about their dissatisfaction with how certain public schools operate. If you talk to an average group of parents, you might hear thoughts about how schools can tend to focus more on testing students rather than listening to students. How they tend to put an emphasis on having students memorize answers instead of creating their own. And while this standard system of schooling may have been beneficial to our nation at one point in time, there are many out there who want to rethink how we teach our children in public schools.
One such place is Big Picture High School in Nashville, Tennessee. We spoke with their principal, Brenda Diaz, on how they’re doing things a little differently...and seeing great results.
“So many students are dropping out, who are not involved or not engaged,” said Brenda. “And they’re not being cultivated to be positive because of life situations. They feel as if people don’t see them, don’t hear them, don’t care.”
Over 1.2 million students drop out of high school each year in the United States - close to 8% of the high school population. Research has indicated that high school dropouts tend to earn less money compared to their graduating peers and have a higher chance of being involved in criminal activity. When looking at these numbers, there are some school administrators who try to focus on improving the schoolwork of these potential dropouts or rethink how they take tests. But as Brenda explains, before you can teach students about different subjects, “students need to know, first of all, that you see them and that you care about them.”
She said their kids often mention how Big Picture feels like a family to them. A lot of students don’t have a solid family life outside of school, which can make things tough. In an ideal world, you would go to school and everything else outside of those doors would stay put, unaffecting your studies. But we all know this isn’t always possible. Life is unpredictable and when problems happen in your home life, it’s hard not to let them bleed into your education.
So Big Picture makes a point to show students that their ideas, goals, and vision matter to the teachers and are important. They’re not just telling the students what to do - they’re listening and tailoring their educational experience according to their interests. Once students have expressed enthusiasm in a given field, Big Picture sets them up with an internship.
But this internship isn’t something kids then have to keep up with on school nights or on the weekends. They spend several days out of the week at these internships (instead of going to school), studying under mentors and gaining practical experience.
“I’ve seen alumni who’ve come back to the school. They talk to our students about how their internship impacted them,” Brenda explained. “We have students who have gone on to get careers and positions with their mentors at their internships.” She told us how their graduates have gotten jobs at hospitals, teaching kindergarten classes, making food at restaurants and even selling antique cars.
The idea of learning from masters in your chosen field at a younger age is a throwback to how children used to learn. Almost by necessity, children would be guided into helping out with the community, contributing however they could without waiting to graduate college to do so. It wasn’t uncommon for parents to have their children help on the family farm; by the time these kids were of high school age, they had already racked up years of experience tending to crops. As more industries were created and more cities and towns were connected by new roads and methods of transportation, the world opened up a bit and new career pathways followed. If you didn’t like the jobs available in town - or on your family farm - you had options.
Standardized education and testing followed; children spent more time at schools than out in the field. Some have seen this as being beneficial, but many have felt that kids were forced to wait longer in order to gain career experience. After all, it can be harder to hold down a job at night when you always have to study for tests you’ll be taking the next morning.
Places like Big Picture High School aren’t trying to do away with all forms of testing and common class work; instead, they’re trying to find the optimal balance of instruction and career development. They don’t see themselves as just an institution, but more as a community. This means getting to know students as people instead of seeing them as numbers. It’s not a “one-size-fits-all” approach to learning.
This is a classically American tradition. After all, when cities and towns were just starting to crop up around the country, class sizes were smaller, which meant teachers tended to know their students on a more personal level. While we may not all agree on what American education should look like going forward, there are schools out there trying a different approach and seeing promising outcomes. It reminds us that learning doesn’t begin and end when you walk through a classroom door.