On any given school day, students start by meeting with advisors to discuss goals and current events, then move on to their student-created clubs doing everything from creating YouTube videos to putting on performing arts productions. Students also have two impact projects to contend with — one concerning humanities, the other STEM — often connecting with what Bhatt calls “lived experiences.”
One student, she said, is creating a special back brace that also provides an extra pair of hands, inspired by a parent who works in the construction industry. The impact projects were designed to cross as many disciplines as possible, and students are expected to provide ample documentation to back up their work from persuasive writing, to presentation and pitching.
All that practice isn’t just preparing students for some far-off future — some of them are already pitching real CEOs as part of their entrepreneurship teams, which function like miniature startups. Each team has already received seed funding in anticipation of a full launch by the time those students get to 12th grade.
“We want to prepare students for three different futures,” Bhatt said. “One is college, the traditional four-year college pathway; also startupland, so they can choose to move into that and then come to college when they’re ready to go to college; and then the third choice that we’re preparing students for is a kind of un-college, unbundled experience, because by the time we have our first graduating class in 2020 we think there will be a lot more options available than just a straight four-year path.”
The students at this network of more than 50 schools in the U.S. (and 60 outside the country) are 75 percent minority and 75 percent free/reduced lunch eligible; and more than 20 percent of them have learning differences, according to Carlos Moreno co-executive director of Big Picture Learning, which received much of its funding for expansion from the Gates Foundation. “We believe all of our students are brilliant,” Moreno said. “And we need to provide them with an opportunity to be brilliant.”
BPL schools tend to focus on the 3 Rs, Moreno said: Relationships, relevance, and rigor. “In order to best serve our students we feel that we need to know them really well,” he said. A robust advisory system pairs students with an advisor for up to four hours a day. In advisory, students are focusing on content but also on social and emotional learning and non-cognitive development.
Students spend two days a week at internships that suit their interests — the relevance portion — and, on campus, work on deep project-based learning that ties into their internship work. For some students, there’s no expectation to take traditional English or science courses, although they are offered.
Instead, developing numeracy and literacy skills happens in an environment that might not look too different from a jobsite. Students demonstrate the third R, rigor, via the occasional standard assessment but more meaningfully through portfolios and quarterly presentations, where they’re expected to vigorously defend the work they’ve done in front of their peers.
Sal Khan’s very own Silicon Valley tuition-based micro-school currently enrolls 60 students, who range in age from 5 to 13 — but don’t call it K-8. “We don’t have grade levels,” explained school director Orly Friedman. “Instead, we’ve decided to group our students by independence level, which means we put them in groups based on how much support they need from a teacher in order to work to the best of their ability.”
Once a week, every student sits down with a teacher to discuss and set goals for themselves in a range of subject and content areas, as well as more fluid self-assessments such as character strengths, cognitive skills, and passion projects (yes, even the five-year-olds).
Additionally, all students move through two blocks of wellness — inner and outer. With so much to do, the school day can run long, often ending at 6 p.m., with Friedman explaining that many students stay the whole time in order to “continue working on goals.”
Since it’s only in its second year, the model may still be something of a work in progress. “Some kids end up wasting a lot of time for the first couple of months,” Friedman said, as they acclimate to setting and achieving their own open-ended goals. “How much time do we allow — where is that balance? I think that will be a question that we’ll ask for a long time.”
The entire panel is available to stream online.