By Stephen Giegerich

Education reformer Dennis Littky, co-founder of Big Picture Learning, takes his highly acclaimed model of tailored instruction to the college level.

For education reformer Dennis Littky, co-founder of Big Picture Learning, the big picture is now even bigger.

Littky, who co-founded Big Picture in 1996 as a way to help at-risk students in the K-12 system in Providence, R.I., has taken his highly acclaimed model of tailored instruction to the next level: the college level. With Big Picture programs now active in 74 K-12 schools in more than a dozen states—and with tens of thousands of first-generation students dropping out of college each year—the move to higher ed was all but inevitable.

See additional images and hear commentary from the reporter Steve Giegerich. Photographs ¬© John Forast√©

A few years ago, Littky looked closely at what happens when low-income students, flush with the excitement of being the first in their families to enroll in college, arrive on campus. It’s a bit of an understatement to say the free-spirited reformer didn’t like what he found: an 89 percent dropout rate.

“You’re talking about what’s best of what’s left and you only have 11 percent?” Littky practically shouted during a recent telephone interview. “It’s repulsive to me. We don’t even need a philosophical reason to do this. We have a moral reason.”

Last August, Littky acted on moral impulse and welcomed the inaugural “College Unbound” class to Roger Williams University in Providence. The template for College Unbound is very similar to the one Littky and co-founder Elliot Washor introduced through Big Picture Learning. In the Big Picture curriculum, the lesson plan for each student is tailored to a specific area of interest. For example, a student obsessed with basketball might be assigned to read Michael Jordan’s biography to meet the language arts component, calculate NCAA scoring averages to develop mathematical skills, and to research the history and geography of a National Basketball Association city to meet the program’s social studies requirement.

The idea has proven quite successful. In 2007, the most recent year for which data are available, 95 percent of Big Picture Learning’s students were accepted into college. Since 1999, 60 percent of the program’s graduates have completed college.

For College Unbound, Littky adapted Big Picture’s personalized-curriculum concept to higher education, with a few necessary variations. An architecture major, for instance, spends three days working in an architect’s office and two days taking basic courses at Roger Williams. Likewise, a psychology major might work with autistic children three days a week and spend two days in Roger Williams’ lecture halls.

Littky worked with the university to design a year-long curriculum to ensure the seven young people in the first College Unbound class—from Los Angeles, Seattle and Camden, N.J., as well as Providence—can graduate 36 months after beginning the program. “These are low-income kids who don’t travel around Europe in the summer,” he explained. Scholastically, the students are enrolled in Roger Williams’ continuing education curriculum. If all goes according to plan, each will leave college with a bachelor’s degree in general studies supplemented by a specialty in his or her area of expertise.

For Alex Villagomez, a self-described “believer in alternative education,” the choice of College Unbound over a traditional university setting was a no-brainer. A graduate of a Big Picture high school in Sacramento, Villagomez understood precisely how the program meshed with his interest in architecture, sustainable construction and landscaping.

Since August, Villagomez has been dividing his time between the seminars that school him in traditional subjects—language arts, science, math and the like—and the cubicle he occupies at Stack Design Build, a small Providence contractor that specializes in environmentally compatible design and construction. He spends his days at Stack Design Build assisting in sustainable design projects as well as chronicling the firm’s efforts on a company blog.

“Most of the time I feel like I’m in the working world, and the education just comes right along with it,” said Villagomez.

A Lumina Foundation grant helps support the College Unbound program, and the “salaries” the students receive from the participating businesses help defray the cost and upkeep of the off-campus home that serves as their dormitory. His eye on the future, Littky is “toying” with a funding model that might require students to subsidize small loans with money earned directly from the participating companies.

When he considered taking his reforms to the postsecondary level, Littky wasn’t sure how colleges and universities might react to a proposal that can radically alter the educational landscape. To his surprise, several institutions were receptive to the idea, although none immediately stepped up to be the first to implement what he calls a “life to text” reconfiguration of higher learning.

Finally, he persuaded Roger Williams to blaze the trail. Another New England university is poised to become the second school to offer College Bound in 2010, Littky says. And with increasing evidence that more and more students are dropping out of college because of their inability to juggle education and employment (see Public Agenda’s recent report, “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them”), still more institutions may take a hard look at College Unbound.

“It’s not just an education problem, it’s a workforce problem,” Littky points out.

Still, as the name suggests, College Unbound is a radical departure from traditional postsecondary education. For his part, Littky welcomes the debate.

“Everyone says the kids are not college-ready,” he says. “Well, I think it’s the colleges who are not student-ready. We have to reverse the whole thing. If we’re losing 89 percent of poor kids, is it perhaps possible that we don’t know how to educate them?”

Many of the unanticipated snags that have popped up in the first year of his alternative program are connected to poverty. When some of the students arrived in Providence with health concerns that their families had been financially unable to address, College Unbound scrambled to fit those into the program’s educational and vocational agenda. “If they’d been in another school, they might have dropped out by now,” Littky says.

The stakeholders in College Unbound emphasize that the program is very much a work in progress—academically, logistically and financially.

“We’re just a semester and a couple of weeks into this,” Joshua Brandt, the co-owner of Stack Design Build said in mid-January. “And we’re still trying to find the right balance between the academic portion and (Alex’s) work in the office in terms of managing his time and his expectations.”

Littky, more than anyone, understands the importance of making sure Alex Villagomez strikes that balance. At stake is the future of College Unbound and Littky’s core belief that the very survival of higher education hinges on its willingness to change the basic model of preparing students for life and work.

“We want to get kids to be great learners,” Littky says. “And if anything goes wrong, I’ll take a deep breath and say, ‘I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t tried.’”

Steve Giegerich, formerly an education writer for the Associated Press and onetime journalism instructor at Columbia University, is a staff writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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