Big Picture Learning founder says ‘social capital’ a key to high school success

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 124 views 

“You can read five books and know more than 95% of the people out there. But to know more than the other 5%, it will take you the rest of your life.”

That was a quote from Elliot Washor, co-founder of Big Picture Learning (BPL), a non-profit organization dedicated to the “Future School” concept of individualized education.

Washor was in Fort Smith on Wednesday night (Sept. 2) to address audience members at Breedlove Auditorium on the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) campus. The talk was in response to an application for Future School of Fort Smith, which was filed July 28 with the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE).

Trish Flanagan, a founder of the effort, believes the school could be ready to open by August 2016. It would start with 150 10th graders and add a new class each year until reaching capacity of 450 students, divided evenly among grades 10-12. Funding for the school would come from ADE.

Organizers must demonstrate financial viability for the school based primarily on state foundation funding ($6,646 per student/year). It is expected — and allowed — for financial support to also come from various local, national and international philanthropic organizations, provided those organizations align with the school’s mission and values.

Unlike public schools, such as Northside and Southside High Schools, the Big Picture school would offer a mix of classroom- and project-based learning, where students would spend two days a week outside the classroom, “interning” with professional mentors, who already work in the student’s area of interest.

Washor explained this concept in more detail Wednesday night and touted Big Picture’s success rates with the model.

For example, Washor said, 14 years removed from their first graduating class, 70% of Big Picture students had jobs or internships in their fields of interest. He called it “social capital,” or “building relationships to get to the places you want to go in life.”

The first thing students are asked: what are your interests? Big Picture attempts to translate those interests to the job market by helping students discover professionals working in that field and then establishing relationships so the students can move forward.

That’s where the other “5%” comes from, Washor noted, adding that it’s not a pathway that guarantees the student a job in their field of interest, but it is a “personal pathway that leads to a career.”

BPL must be doing something right, especially the more you hear Washor’s thick Brooklyn accent roll off the statistics.

“We have about an 88% graduation rate from our schools,” he said. “We have about 90% of our students going on to post-secondary. We have very very high college completion rates in five or six years and by age 29, compared to cohorts who are similar to our students demographically, which by the way, are not very high and have never been very high in college completion rates — about 42% of people who start college actually finish it.”

During the address, Washor hit on just how many students of standard public schools feel disengaged from education (65%).

“They’re being taught; they’re just not learning,” he quipped, blaming a system that fails to cultivate students’ legitimate interests, setting those aside in favor of standards and tests.

Future School does play within that system, with students subject to Common Core and all the same standards as their public school counterparts. They’re just able to achieve higher success rates because there isn’t as much of a disconnect between what the student is passionate about and his actual education path, he said.

Washor reminded attendees that while a school has expectations of its students, students have expectations of their school.

“You have to want to learn. You have to want to be there. And when you engage them on their interests, they want to be there,” he added.

The jury is still out, however, on whether Fort Smith School Board members will want Future School of Fort Smith to be here.

Zena Featherston, spokeswoman for the Fort Smith Public School District, said Superintendent Benny Gooden had asked School Board members if they wanted to oppose, support or remain neutral on the charter application. In comments published by the Times Record, Gooden expressed some of his own concerns about the financial loss the school might impose on the district.

It’s yet to be determined what the School Board will decide, and with three positions open (two contested) for the upcoming general election on Sept. 15, the Board’s position could remain in the air for weeks to come.

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