A glance at the campus and classrooms of one of the seven Rhode Island-based Met Schools immediately conveys a sense that this district is unique. Instead of the rows of desks and standard-size rooms, in these high schools are large open spaces and huge windows, and students gather at conference tables or in comfy chairs. The nod toward a collegiate environment is just one of the ways that the district sets its students, who are mostly considered at-risk, on the track toward higher learning.
With 64 percent of its students on the free and reduced lunch program, the district serves students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Although this is an at-risk group, the numbers coming out of the district's schools, six in Providence and one in Newport, are stunning: almost 95 percent graduate, one of the highest rates in the state. By comparison, the average for Providence major high schools is 54 percent.
Founded by The Big Picture Company 12 years ago and with financial support from the Gates Foundation, The Met Center represents an innovative approach to education and is the brainchild of Dennis Littky and colleague Elliot Washor, who have near rock-star status among progressive school reformers. Although it adheres to state and federal requirements for testing and achievement - The Met actually exceeded state No Child Left Behind goals set in 2007-the district has revamped the traditional approach to high school learning by putting the students in charge of their education.
The Met accepts students through a random lottery system after they've submitted an application. It is mandated to accept 75 percent of its students from the city of Providence and the remaining 25 percent from the rest of Rhode Island. Once accepted, a student must create a lesson plan with the help of an advisor, who shepherds a group of 15 students through all four years of high school. The advisory approach helps to create a deeper bond among students and with advisors, but it also proves useful in sparking parental involvement, says Becca Siddons, who has been a Met advisor for seven years.
"The four-year cycle makes lesson planning more challenging, because you can't just reuse what you did last year, but it's also awesome because you get to see a kid grow from ninth grade to graduation," she says. "It's great to have that four years to figure out how to support them, and the parents really trust you because you're all working together for so long. It's very powerful."
Another major component of the curriculum is internships. Students spend two days a week with mentors who teach them according to their interests. There are over 700 job sites that have worked with The Met, including law offices, veterinarians, high-end restaurants, and a number of other career sources. Curriculum designed by a student is integrated with the internships for a more comprehensive learning plan.
For example, 11th-grader Hope Lafitte has worked at the New England Aquarium for the past two years and has learned how to give presentations, interpret scientific knowledge, and write research papers about marine life. "The teachers give you so much trust and independence," she says. "No matter what, you feel like they're there for you and preparing you for the future."
"Our main objective is creating a school model that addresses one student at a time," says Nancy Diaz, co-director of the seven R.I. Met Schools. "Keeping them interested and connected to their passion keeps them in school." The administration works hard to establish an environment of mutual respect, she adds, and even the collegiate look is beneficial toward that aim.
"In some schools, it's kind of chaotic when you're in the hallway," says Diaz. "We wanted to make sure this was a calm, respectful space where kids want to be, where they can be creative."
Although The Met benefi ts from its small class size, there are strategies that could benefit districts of any size, believes Sonn Sam, administrator of the district's Peace Street Campus. One notable tactic is to create small cohorts of students that stick together throughout high school. "They have a group where they can talk about academics and build relationships," he says. "It's like homeroom but more intentional and more meaningful."
Some districts could also benefit from involving students in projects that give them greater responsibility, notes Chris Hempel, principal of The Met's Public Street Campus. "Really, we're asking them to learn how to become adults and develop resources within the community to give their lives authenticity and purpose," he says. "When you give them those expectations, they tend to meet them."
The Met design has been scaled up to a network of 36 Big Picture schools across 16 cities and 12 states.
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.