September 17, 2015
Last Friday afternoon, outside the Monroe Avenue Jeremiahs, contemplating ordering Catatonic vs. Wise Guy chicken wings, I encountered a procession of purple-clad young pilgrims (and you my purple prose) en route from sport at Cobb’s Hill back to home base on the second floor of the Blessed Sacrament Church, also on Monroe Avenue. Who were they?
Hauling the overstuffed equipment bag, Dean of Students Deon Rodgers invited me to see East Big Picture myself. This is the school’s first year, beginning with a class of 9th graders and expanding from there.
Coming by Monday morning–noticing the church sign still in place for its massive three day sale in June where I acquired a now well used foosball table–I immediately felt an upbeat, positive vibe. Quite a few students recognized me from East and other schools. They looked happier than when we last met. Those I spoke with said so far they liked Big Picture, especially since they chose to be there rather than feeling forced.
As East is now managed by the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, Dean Rodgers explained how his program fits in. Fundamentally, he sees his school as a positive way East is proactively addressing the needs of its 9th grade population. Rodgers is quick to emphasize his students are still considered East students, just in a different building. They can participate in all East extra curricular activities and have access to all the same services provided on the main campus.
Right now having about 60 ninth graders and four teachers, East Big Picture is specifically designed for students who do well in a smaller school setting. Some students just perform better in an environment where they get ample individual attention. If a student has not reported to school by 10 am, teachers and administrators make a call home. As Rodgers says, “We treat each individual student as our own children.”
All importantly, Rodgers is encouraged that parents are on board. As people learned more about what Big Picture was offering, interested parents came forward:
Parents are excited about the opportunity for their children to participate in the program. Many of the parents appreciate the daily communication from the school. All students in the program have received a home visit from either me or their teacher.
Furthermore, Big Picture Learning’s Regional Director of Network Support Jennifer Ghidiu explained her role–which she describes as a coach–and why 9th grade is such an important year for alternative programs.
Big Picture Learning, as a project partner, provides design support and coaching to bring our ten distinguishers to life at East Big Picture. My role is to help establish the school and to push the staff to think differently.
We realize that the 9th grade year is pivotal. Students who are on-track after the 9th grade year are four times more likely to graduate than those who are not. The high school transition can be alienating, challenging, and comes at a time in adolescent development when young people feel stressed and are looking to assert their independence.
Recently, I’ve been writing a lot about the new East. Seeing East Big Picture in action was seeing the University of Rochester’s ground level commitment in action. If these 60 students get the experience they need to succeed (keeping up their part of the bargain, too), one more piece of the puzzle is that much more solidly in place.