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When Chris Emery started ninth grade four years ago, he seemed destined to drop out. His parents were struggling to get by, and neither had much education. Chris hadn’t done well in middle school in downtown Providence, R.I., and was deeply disaffected. "School is miserable, and there is nothing else we can do," he recalls telling his friends. His ambition was to maybe become a cook.
But on June 9, Chris graduated with flying colors from a Providence high school known as The Met. He's so enthralled with science that he often stays up late to read textbooks. Though just 18, he's already logged endless hours in the research labs at nearby Brown University, an Ivy League school. And this fall, he'll head to Manhattanville College, where he plans to study neuroscience, on a full scholarship, no less.
COLLEGE BOUND. Such apparently miraculous transformations are almost par for the course at what may be America's most unorthodox high school,formally known as The Metropolitan Regional Career & Technical Center. Co-founder Dennis Littky, an outspoken opponent of the nation's testing craze, has thrown out most of the things commonly associated with high school from required courses to regimented schedules. Instead, students are assigned to one "advisor," with whom they work for all four years. The advisor's job: to figure out what inspires and excites each student. Students then spend two days each week off-campus, exploring their passions in internships. It's an approach that Littky calls "educating one kid at a time."
The results have been stellar, even with a main campus that’s stuck in a former crack-house neighborhood and a student body comprised of mostly low-income minorities who failed at conventional schools. The Met now has 700 students, spread across six schools in Providence. Last year, a stunning 98% of its seniors graduated, and every last one got into college. Over the years, an average of 75% of grads went on to college right away, and of those, three-fourths are either still enrolled or have graduated.
Littky readily agrees that the Met isn’t a complete answer to America’s dropout dilemma. Instead, it’s aimed at kids like Emery, who simply don’t thrive in conventional schools with a class full of students and tests at the end. Indeed, as Met-like schools pop up from Oakland to Detroit, they're challenging popular conceptions of what the nation must do to meet the spirit of the No Child Left Behind Act. The law says that 100% of America's school children will perform at grade level, meaning all would graduate. The law's assumption is that this lofty goal can be met with a back-to-basics approach in which kids are constantly tested to make sure they have met standards specifying what they must learn.
PATIENCE. Littky vehemently rejects this approach. He says many kids start the Met’s 9th grade with a 5th-grade education level. They didn’t make it in the prior nine years, he argues, so what’s the point of making them try again? Tom Vander Ark, executive director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s education initiative, thinks as many as 20% of all American high-school students may need a Met-type education. For the hardest to reach, "the Met is one of the most promising models yet developed," says Vander Ark, who since 1999 has given $14 million to the Big Picture Company, the Met's parent, mainly to help it roll out 54 clone schools by next year. (It already has 36 up and running in 16 cities.)
The Met is the brainchild of Littky and his long-time partner, Elliot Washor, who have near rock-star status among progressive school reformers. A TV movie was even made in the early 1990s about Littky's controversial, but successful efforts to turn around a failing high school in New Hampshire. So in 1995, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Peter McWalters asked Littky if he and Washor would build a new school and gave them free rein to design it.
The Met's radically different structure—no classes, kids heading off in vans to internships, adults and kids on a first-name basis—can be shocking to visitors to its main campus in Providence. But the real secret to its success may be how it approaches students. One key: patience. Given these students’ rough backgrounds, they need a lot of coaching, not just on educational subjects but on how to get along in school and life—the need to get up on time, attend class, not act out. So the Met gives them a second, third, and even a fourth chance. "If you expel them the first time they act out (as many urban schools do), you're going to have a very high dropout rate," says Eliot Levine, a PhD psychologist who's written a book about The Met and now works as an advisor there.
HOOKED. Chris Emery is a perfect example of how such patience pays off. When Emery showed up at the Met four years ago, "He wasn't serious at all about the academics," recalls his advisor Carlos Moreno, a huge, friendly man who left a budding business career to teach at the school. So Carlos helped Emery get an internship at a commercial bakery. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Emery would head out to Pastry Arts in nearby Central Falls, where he learned how to mix batter and make cheesecake and tarts. Back at The Met, Emery was hardly a model student. "He was carefree, and I had a couple of discipline issues," recalls Moreno. "One time he went after a student with a pair of scissors," after that student had threatened to cut Chris' long hair. Moreno stepped in before the situation got out of hand. "And sometimes he would randomly leave the building," says Moreno.
But things changed once Emery became a sophomore. While working as an intern in the Met's kitchen, he became interested in the impact food has on health. He decided to compare the healthy food served at the Met with the nearby Wendy's, a favorite student haunt. Soon, Emery was immersed in research on lipids and fat molecules. His primary conclusion, which he then presented to fellow students: Wendy's food had a lot more fat and sodium than the food at the Met, which was not only healthier, but free to students. Emery was so persuasive that some Met students and faculty—including Moreno—stopped going to Wendy's.
By then, Emery was hooked. "When I woke up in the morning, I didn't want to go into the kitchen anymore," he recalls. "I wanted to do research. I loved science. It was so much fun." That was the moment Moreno had been waiting for. Figuring it was time for Emery to move on to another mentor, he called an old frat buddy who was earning a doctorate at Brown. Eventually, that led to a brief meeting between Emery and Leigh Needleman, a young Brown scientist working on her doctorate in neuroscience.
WANTED: GOOD PEOPLE. Understandably, Needleman was skeptical. But Emery asked complicated questions, and understood her answers, she says. So Needleman decided to give him a chance, and soon Emery was helping set up her lab experiments. Then she let him work with the lab's ultra-expensive microscopes, used to zoom in on neurons. "He was using equipment that most college students never touch until they become grad students," she says. She encouraged him to take Brown's introductory neuroscience course, where he pulled a B, despite his shaky academic past. Emery, whose parents didn’t go to college, now dreams of earning his own PhD.
While not every Met student is smart enough to be a neuroscientist, Littky has managed to maintain the school’s impressive graduation and college-going rates even as it expanded to six publicly funded Met campuses in Providence. Its 700 students, up from 50 in the late 1990s, now represent nearly 10% of Providence's high school population. The record has made it a darling of the Rhode Island business community, which has eagerly helped Met students find internships. "We need to teach kids to be problem solvers, rather just memorize facts, and that is what The Met does," gushes former CVS CEO Stanley Goldstein.
Expanding beyond the original school, though, has been a bigger challenge. To flourish, the 36 cloned Mets need a strong leader, talented teachers, and a supportive political environment. Some haven't found that, and are struggling with low test scores, high turnover, and even battles with authorities to stay open. One factor may be the scarcity of leaders like Littky, whom everyone calls "Doc." He’s a larger-than-life presence in Providence with an innate sense of how to reach even the toughest kids. In turn, his magnetism has attracted an extraordinary staff of talented people like Levine, who has a PhD in clinical psychology, and Samantha Broun, an energetic Harvard University grad who runs the Met's program for helping its graduates make the transition to college. "For our philosophy to work, you need good people," says Littky. "Where we struggle is where we haven't found the right people." Students at such schools still go on internships, but they aren't going deep enough on the projects. So they don't learn as much, says Littky, and are less likely to become passionate about learning—Littky's real dream for each student.
SLOWER PACE. An even bigger hurdle has been winning political support for such an unconventional school. In Rhode Island, McWalters actually has modeled some state requirements on the Met’s approach. But the political environment is radically different in many other states, like Colorado, which remains focused on kids' scores on the state test, known as CSAP. And that's created trouble for Big Picture's first high school in Denver, known as Skyland Community High. Like the Met, Skyland has managed to engage most kids, and all of its first small class of graduates have been accepted at college. But because students' scores on CSAP have been low, Skyland has come under intense fire from the Denver School Board, which debated closing the school earlier this year. Although Skyland's charter has been renewed, it will be on a very tight leash. "We would love to have a school as successful as The Met, but we don't have that yet," says Brad Jupp, senior academic policy adviser with the Denver Public Schools. If the school doesn't improve, it will likely be closed.
To be sure, Big Picture also has had some real success stories, like its school in Oakland, where all the seniors are graduating this year and have been accepted in college. The Met's model is also taking root in Detroit, where there will be four such high schools this fall, operating as charters—meaning they use public funds, but operate free of most district rules. By late next year, there should be a network of 54 Big Pictures.
Even so, Littky and Washor no longer dream of creating hundreds or thousands of Mets around the country. "I compare it to Ben and Jerry's; They were opening schools at a pace that exceeded their grasp, and so losing control," says Joseph McDonald, associate dean at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University, who has studied Big Picture's rollout. Still, the Met has hit on a formula that can work, even if it’s not yet clear how broadly.Click here for the slide show