Tests Are History at This High School
Los Angeles Times
December 27, 2004

By Elizabeth Mehren, Times Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE, R.I. When she wanted to be a detective, Carleen Mylers studied criminal justice and took a job as an investigator. When she thought she might become a lawyer, she worked in family court. Now that she has an internship in a local middle school, people are asking if she plans to go into teaching.

No, Mylers says. What she is actually doing is spying, using her observations as fodder for a novel.

"I look at the kids who are always reading, walking around with a book in their hands," Mylers said. "I know my novel will have a character like that."

For Mylers, 17, the diverse workplace experience is part of her curriculum at the Met School a thriving public high school here that caters to a largely poor and minority student population.

The 9-year-old Met School defies convention, with no letter grades, no required classes, and "advisors" instead of teachers who work with the same small group of students for four consecutive years. Instead of taking tests, the 580 students present "exhibitions" of their work.

With 100% of its seniors accepted each year to college, the Met's "one student at a time" approach to learning has caught the attention of educators around the country.

The success of the school also prompted the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund a nationwide network of similar schools known as the Big Picture.

Awards of about $15 million made the Big Picture Company "our largest alternative school grantee," said Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education for the Gates Foundation.

"There simply are kids that are wired differently or have had different life experiences. They need schools that are highly individualized and highly supportive," Vander Ark said. "The Met certainly is both. We take people there just to blow apart their preconceptions of how a school ought to work."

Among the 18 Big Picture campuses established in the last two years are schools in Oakland, San Diego, Sacramento and rural El Dorado, Calif. Dennis Littky, founder of the Met School and co-director of the Big Picture Company, said a school in Santa Monica also was under discussion.

The conventional U.S. high school, Littky said, is little more than "an early 20th century assembly line."

"The word most kids use when they talk about high school is 'boring,' " Littky said. "What a shame."

Littky began formulating his ideas about redesigning American high schools while serving as a fellow at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. It was there that Rhode Island Education Commissioner Peter McWalters approached Littky about setting up a new school for grades nine to 12. The formal name of the school was to be the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, but McWalters told Littky he wanted a college preparatory school, not a vocational training facility.

"I thought, this is my chance," Littky said. "I've always wanted to work with the poor, and with kids who are thought of as underdogs. I wanted to do something different, something that would be best for the kids."

The result was a team approach in which parents, advisors and students were equal partners. Students learn not from textbooks or lesson plans but from individualized, real-world experience: internships that take them to a workplace at least two days a week. The school focuses on writing, including a 75-page autobiography that every student must complete as a senior project.

The Met, where more than 80% of students qualify for federal meal subsidies, has the highest student retention level (98%) and the highest college placement level of any high school in the state. The campus functions with the same $11,000-per-student allocation that Rhode Island authorizes for every high school, McWalters said.

Among five classes that have graduated, 75% have some kind of college degree or certificate or are still in school.

"I am not sure [the Met] is a panacea. Right now, to me, it is an alternative," McWalters said. Even in a "data-driven, results-oriented era," he said, "there is still this kind of 'there has got to be something wrong' kind of reaction when you talk about the Met."

Indeed, the school ended up on a national watch list after faring poorly last year on standardized tests required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Met students did better this year, and the school came off the list.

For Littky, the low test scores were almost a reverse badge of honor. He started the Met by recruiting middle school students who were faring so poorly that they were likely not to attend high school at all. Met students now are selected by lottery.

The student body is about 40% Latino, 30% African American, 26% white and 4% other ethnicities.

"I believe that there is not one set of subject matter that all human beings need to know," Littky said. "There is so much knowledge out there. The key is loving to learn, finding knowledge and then applying that knowledge.

"I am fighting standardized tests," he said. "And I am fighting No Child Left Behind."

Littky, 60, intended to work with autistic children when he earned a double doctorate in psychology and education at the University of Michigan.

But in 1969, he began working with a program to promote parental involvement in schools in Brooklyn, N.Y. At 27, he became principal of a middle school on Long Island, where he immediately ran into trouble with parents who did not like the project-oriented innovations he was proposing.

He took the same pragmatic philosophy to his next job as principal of a small school in a New Hampshire mill town that was in danger of closing. Littky turned the school around, but his nontraditional methods so enraged a group of parents that they had him fired. Littky went to court and won his job back. The experience became the basis for a 1992 television movie called "A Town Torn Apart."

While working in New Hampshire, Littky attended a lecture by Theodore Sizer, then a Brown University professor and a longtime critic of conventional educational methods. The two became friends, as well as collaborators in Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools, a loose grouping of the leaders of about 1,500 schools who agreed to follow Sizer's educational principles.

"Instead of saying: 'This is what school is; how do we rearrange it to do better?' Dennis said: 'How do you capture these kids that most people think are already lost?' " Sizer said.

Along with workplace internships, Sizer said, Littky incorporated the premise that "adults would be on these kids' cases all the time, because if you are not on their cases, they will drift away."

At a recent Met School "check-in" session, the students in Rebecca Siddons' advisory group gave status reports on their projects.

One student talked about a weekend workshop on eating disorders that she ran for fifth- through eighth-grade girls. Another described his progress in trying to help a Spanish-speaking family buy a house. An aspiring musician crowed that the radio station he was launching finally made it onto the air.

"Most college admissions officers are blown away when they hear these kids tell their stories," said Siddons, adding that Met students were not hampered by a lack of traditional markers, such as grade points or course requirements.

"The War of 1812 is not part of the curriculum here," she said. "This school is based on the idea that skills are more important than content, and that students can learn what they need to know when they need to know it."

After working in a state program to prevent child abuse, for example, Mylers decided she wanted to learn about psychology. She got Bs in two courses at a community college in Spanish and criminology.

The daughter of a carpenter and a day-care provider, Mylers is applying to half a dozen colleges, including Amherst College, her "reach" school. She hopes to finish her novel in the spring, and says that coaching middle school students helps improve her own writing.

She said that learning through her interests motivated her to pursue subjects she might never have explored otherwise. She also said it was "definitely cool" to be smart at the Met.

"This school started out as an experiment," she said. "And now it is turning into the future."