In an effort to spark interest and increase graduation rates, Big Picture High School eliminated traditional, semester-long classes this year in favor of shorter classes that sample various disciplines, such as woodworking, that still require students to use core curriculum skills like math.
The new four-week-long classes are intended to offer memorable experiences, many of them outside the classroom, a model known as “leaving to learn,” said Bradley Hardin, school principal.
Since introducing the classes in the fall, the school has seen shorter classes make a difference by introducing a sense of urgency to the students’ learning, Hardin said.
“More kids were learning more things, more quickly,” he said.
Big Picture is an alternative high school that serves 95 students, many of whom may be behind in school and dealing with difficult family environments.
It had a 75% completion rate for its students though seven years of study in 2018. The new model of learning is intended to bolster that rate, Hardin said.
Classes led by professionals are naturally engaging for students, he said. For example, the culinary arts class led by former chef Jonathan Byers fascinated students, he said.
Big Picture freshman Zanna Waxman, 15, signed up for the culinary class because she expected to learn useful skills, she said.
“Being an adult and not knowing how to cook is a really bad situation,” she said.
Big Picture senior Matthew Johnson, 17, said short classes keep students from getting bored and allow them to explore their own interests.
This year, Johnson said he built a small wind turbine for his senior thesis because he wants to be a wind turbine technician.
Just like traditional high school students, Johnson and his classmates must earn 23 credits to graduate by demonstrating their knowledge in certain subjects. However, learning the new skills may look vastly different for Big Picture students.
For example, instead of taking a traditional English class, students may learn some of those skills in a science-fiction writing course, Hardin said.
Before selecting courses, students listen to pitches from teachers who designed the classes, he said. Students and their advisers are responsible for ensuring the courses they pick cover the skills needed to earn high school credit, he said.
Next year, the school intends to develop its new leaving-to-learn model through a three-year, $300,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Education that will help the school organize and fund more community experiences led by professionals, he said.
The grant allowed the school to hire a coordinator to help organize more community classes and gather data about student learning during the short classes, among other tasks.
“This grant is really going to take it to the next level,” he said.