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Giving Students the Autonomy to Thrive Beyond the Classroom

Big Picture Learning innovates the typical school structure to expose students to real-world career development and nontraditional learning.

A passionate communicator with a penchant for public speaking, storytellling, education reform, and puns.

The problem: Students in all parts of the country feel disengaged from their education.

The opportunity: Provide students with meaningful, student-centered opportunities that connect them with their learning.

The solution: Flip traditional public school upside down so it focuses on the big picture.

Highline Big Picture Learning hosts 195 middle and high school students from the SeaTac area. Just as the name suggests, the school focuses on providing students with concrete career development skills to prepare them for life after high school. The school week consists of a unique campus sharing schedule, where high school students spend Tuesdays and Thursdays at internships in their field of interest. Internships are usually found at community businesses: the local consignment store, the metal fabrication studio, or even, the nearby Native shaman. In the words of Yaqqiyrah, a junior, “the focus of this school is ultimately to get students to spend less time here.”

At Big Picture Learning, students see the importance of community in their education. From their “101” year (BPL code for freshman), students are placed into advisories that are capped at eighteen students. As Rowan, a sophomore, reflected, this makes the class “feel like a family.” Frankly, I was surprised by how close fellow students and teachers seemed. At lunch, everyone left their separate tables to help set up the cafeteria for basketball. Teachers would cross the sea of people between periods to high five one of their former students. This community didn’t dissipate when the final school bell rang.

Outside of advisory, the typical school day is punctuated with student-designed seminars, spanning from “How to Make a Documentary” to “Sword Fighting.” Megan, Justin, and I had the opportunity to sit on a seminar about local reptilian life taught by Jose, a 301. Even though he was just a year younger than his pupils, Jose commanded respect from the class, who shared interest in the collective learning.

Lisa Escobar, Principal at Highland Big Picture Learning in Seattle

From Principal Lisa to the cafeteria workers, Big Picture Learning transcends the typical hierarchy of the student-teacher relationship. Here, students refer to their teachers by their first name and are rewarded for respectfully questioning the rules. During the Student Leadership Forum, we witnessed a spirited debate over the school’s speaker rules; seventh to eleventh graders challenged their Dean on the ability to play music through speakers during the school day. Students had the power to plan more than just proms; they were equal stakeholders in their education.

"The first question we ask our students when planning their primary education is 'what would it look like for you to be excellent in the real world?'"

As Megan, Justin, and I shuttled between classrooms, we felt the buzz of upcoming “exhibitions.” But, unlike most schools where assessment is synonymous with anxiety and stress, students were generally excited to present their progress to their advisors, parents, and internship coordinators. Students spend each year on an explorative project that culminates in tri-annual exhibitions. Here, students are compelled to buy into their education by pursuing what matters to them. One student combined animal sciences with language arts by creating pamphlets about “bunny care.” Another built World War I-era metal fabrications. Through the lens of their projects, students are allowed to become bona fide experts in their passion area, mastering Washington state competencies, while edifying the community that watches their exhibitions.

José, a junior at Highland, teaches his classmates about local ecology once a week. He also interns with two Seattle ecology organizations, which count as concurrent school credit.

Just miles away from Big Picture sits the paradoxically glittering Seattle, filled with elite private schools and the world’s most powerful technology companies. In SeaTac, a casualty of the Seattle real estate boom, students are coming from low-resourced backgrounds, where they often balance school with work commitments. True to its name, BPL understands the holistic life of these students and seeks to find educational value even in their out-of-school commitments. Here, applying to at least one college is a graduate requirement and students are encouraged to consider career opportunities that they never thought possible.

Highline’s school isn’t just transforming the lives of students in SeaTac, it’s offering a model for the rest of Washington State. In nearby Issaquah, the Highline students helped design the school grounds to fit the Big Picture Model. Excitingly, next year, Big Picture will also face change, as it accepts sixth graders for the first time. In the midst of this radical transition, Big Picture Learning isn’t looking to maintain the status quo of education: it’s looking to radically transition the paradigm of learning into one that prepares students for the next forty years of their career, not just the next four.

Big Picture Learning isn’t perfect. The school campus, battered by the recent snow, is starting to show its age. There is a need for more comprehensive writing and math classes. Even our intrepid tour guide, Wilson, a school coach for the Big Picture Learning Model, agrees that the food could use some work. But, in this building, students are the captains of their education. They are fearlessly outspoken, engaged, and optimistic about their futures after high school. Their learning looks outside the scope of worksheet packets and sees the Big Picture.