Part 2 deals with MetWest High School principals, the design of the school, and the Big Picture Learning network of schools to which MetWest belongs.
The founding teachers left in 2005 and since then there have been four principals who have accepted and adapted the Big Picture Learning design to the contours of OUSD and Oakland students. Eve Gordon an Advisor/Teacher at the school became principal in 2005 and stayed until 2010 when she took a post in the OUSD district office. Thus far no principal has served five or more years.
Sean McClung succeeded Gordon in 2011. Coming from an assistant principal post in another OUSD small high school, the former Teach for America instructor left after two years for a principalship at Impact Academy of Arts and Technology in Hayward, 20 miles south of Oakland. Charlie Plant from the Big Picture Learning network arrived in 2014 and served four years after leading other BPL schools on both East and West coasts. A former house painter and business owner, Plant turned to teaching and administration becoming an advocate for youth who wanted to work in the trades. He returned to BPL in 2017 to coordinate the Harbor Freight Fellows program that have high school students working in manufacturing and craft trades. [i]
Michelle Deiro is the fifth principal of the school since the founders exited MetWest. A former English teacher and department head in an East Bay district, Deiro came to MetWest in 2004. As a Advisor/Teacher, she spent nine years before getting her administrative credential and leaving MetWest for a string of posts in another district, with a charter school in the area, and a hospital. She returned to MetWest after Charlie Plant departed applying shortly thereafter to be principal of the school. She was named principal in 2018. [ii]
Except for a commitment to the student internship experience, this instability in leadership exacted a price in pursuing consistently and coherently the school’s mission and expected learner outcomes over the years.
From the founding teachers who served as co-principals through Deiro, these principals had moved in and out of different locations in OUSD before moving in 2014 into a new building shared with an elementary school. Through these changes in facilities, site administrators remained attached to the design of a Big Picture Learning school. Even with principal instability, these administrators found the commitment to students working outside the school and integrating academic and work into daily lessons worthwhile enough to serve as its leaders. Knowing the Big Picture design, then, is an important factor in understanding how this small high school expanded traditional notions of “success” and “failure” in U.S. schools
The Big Picture Learning Design
The Big Picture Learning vision, mission, goals, and program design are intimately tied together and mirror the intentions of MetWest staff over the years.
It is our vision that all students live lives of their own design, supported by caring mentors and equitable opportunities to achieve their greatest potential. We move forward prepared to activate the power of schools, systems & education through student-directed, real-world learning. We are activists.
The mission “is to activate the potential of schools, systems, & education through Student-driven real-world learning.”[iii]
The Big Picture Learning website is clear on how that it is to occur. Under the title, “How It Works,” the design of the model becomes evident.
Each student at a Big Picture Learning school is part of a small learning community of 15 students called an advisory.
Each advisory is supported and led by an advisor, a teacher that works closely with the group of students and forms personalized relationships with each advisee.
Each student works closely with his or her advisor to identify interests and personalize learning.
The student as the center of learning truly engages and challenges the student, and makes learning authentic and relevant.
Each student has an internship where he or she works closely with a mentor, learning in a real world setting.
Parents and families are actively involved in the learning process, helping to shape the student’s learning plan and are enrolled as resources to the school community.
The result is a student-centered learning design, where students are actively invested in their learning and are challenged to pursue their interests by a supportive community of educators, professionals, and family members. [iv]
But every Big Picture Learning school is not like matching cupcakes sitting in a muffin pan. Although following the same design, there are differences that set apart MetWest in Oakland from The Met in Providence (RI) and others in its national network. While there is much that is common in the design and the umbrella organization wants the design to be adhered to across BPL schools, contexts differ causing design adjustments to be made.
Rural and urban BPL schools, for example, have different students and stakeholders. Community politics vary across settings. Some schools are in spanking-new buildings, others are in trailers and re-opened old schools. SomeBPL schools have stability in principal leadership, some do not. Then there is demography. Students coming to the Lafayette Big Picture High School in Onondaga County (NY) differ racially, ethnically, and academically from those arriving at MetWest in Oakland.
Most of these features stem from the small school movement in which BPL participated yet one key component missing from most small urban high schools founded in the 1990s and at the core of the BPL design—its “heart and soul”–is the internship. Students leave school twice weekly to work at a hospital, school, city agency, and business. That is central to BPL as it is at MetWest. [viii]
Nonetheless, there remains a tension between fidelity to the BPL design and the inevitable adaptations that occur in the different settings in which schools are located. Sticking to the elements of the design while tailoring those important pieces to fit a particular set of students amid changes in principals is a tightrope walk that each school, including MetWest, undertakes. BPL leadership acknowledges and encourages local adaptations as long as key design features are incorporated.
In what ways does MetWest vary from BPL design?
Neither a charter or magnet school, as a regular public school in OUSD, MetWest has carved out autonomy to meet BPL requirements for advisories, teachers staying four years with the same group of students, internships, a flexible schedule, focus on the humanities, and activism in the community by applying and receiving independent school status. Hence, MetWest conforms to the design, especially the role of Advisor/Teacher, internships and connections with the community. Where it swerves from the design is due to the Oakland students entering the school.
For example, MetWest accepts many students whose prior experiences in school left them minimally prepared to succeed in high school academic subjects, meet college requirements, and graduate. To conform to the BPL design and deal with the wide variation in student academic knowledge and skills, MetWest needed to adjust to the diverse and demanding academic needs of their students. To do that, MetWest had to be free of many, but not all, OUSD policies and procedures.
To gain that essential autonomy and adjust key features of the BPL design, MetWest school founders applied for Independent Study status as a school. As an Independent Study school, MetWest had wide-ranging autonomy to have smaller classes, much tutoring and mentoring of students, extra time in academic courses, teachers who doubled as advisors, afternoon internships, and, equally important the discretion to design an infrastructure for staff growth in expertise and skills. Savvy political negotiations on the part of MetWest leaders to become an Independent Study school made possible the creation of a high school very different from others in the district while tweaking both OUSD and BPL requirements.[ix]
Variation in design requirements occurred in the school’s work to strengthen students’ academic skills in reading, math, and writing. Elementary and middle school preparation left gaps in many students’ academic portfolios. MetWest students in 2017, for example, did not score high on state reading and math tests; proficiency levels in math are very low (seven percent with the state average 39); in reading it is 46 percent with the state average at 50. Moreover, students take few advanced courses and are ranked low in college readiness factors even with a 95 percent graduation rate. Such metrics only confirm the amount of work that needs to be done during these high school years for students, many of whom are the first in their families to consider college.[x]
For students to graduate and be prepared to enter college, much attention had to be paid in and out of class on sequencing of skills and knowledge from one course to another and one grade to another insofar as Expected Schoolwide Learning Results (ESLR). Additionally, a consistent strengthening of study, note-taking, and inquiry skills necessary for students to do well not only academically but also in their internships and planning for college had to be coherently planned across Advisor/Teachers.
MetWest’s daily schedule reflects the increasing concentration on improving academic skills and meeting ESLRs. For example, while most BPL schools set aside two days a week for internships uninterrupted by in-school classes, MetWest’s schedule calls for Tuesday and Thursday as Learning through Internship (LTI) permitting students to leave for their work-sites after 10: 00 AM except for those students taking math and science classes each day. Those students leave around 11:30 AM. In addition, there is an array of volunteer tutors, adult mentors, peer-help, and daily coaching by Advisor/Teachers that supplements course-work making MetWest more academic-focused, more time spent in strengthening and consolidating subject matter and skills than other BPL schools. And the current principal sees even more tightening up of a coherent academic program necessary.[xi]
[i] The names of MetWest principals come from interviews with Michelle Deiro and Young Whan Choi, Internet search and videos. See, for example, one with Charlie Plant at: https://www.harborfreightfellows.org/apps/video/watch.jsp?v=207148
[ii] Interview with Michelle Deiro, April 4, 2019.
[iv] At the Big Picture Learning website, “How It Works” can be seen at: https://www.bigpicture.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=389353&type=d&pREC_ID=882356
[vi] Principal Michelle Deiro pointed out to me that MetWest has no formal policy on teacher looping with students for four years. At MetWest, it can be 2-4 years depending upon the teacher. Email to me from Deiro, July 3, 2019.
[viii] Of the ten BPL design features described above, for MetWest I will focus on the Advisor/Teacher role as enacted within classroom lessons, the internship experience, school leadership and organization, and assessment of work in classroom and school.
[ix] Interviews with Michelle Deiro, February 1, 2019 and April 4, 2019.
[x] Great! Schools.org, “MetWest High School,” at: https://www.greatschools.org/california/oakland/12550-Metwest-High-School/
[xi] Interviews with Michelle Deiro, February 1, 2019 and April 4, 2019; Interview with Young Whan Choi, April 4, 2019.