The Met Center
Two years ago, Will Guise, a Rhode Island high school student, liked nothing better than to curl up with a good social work casebook. The stories of people helping others with mental illnesses and related issues fascinated him. But he was barely passing English at his school.
“My parents knew my situation,” Guise says. “They’d been to enough teacher conferences where people said, ‘We just can’t help your son.’ But, when I was motivated, I knew I was capable of doing the work.”
So, Guise and his parents researched alternative high schools where he could pursue a course of learning tailored to his interests. Enter The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (The Met Center) in Providence. Opened in 1996 by the Big Picture Company, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to rethinking American schooling, The Met Center revolved around a program called Learning Through Internship (LTI). Big Picture co-directors Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor believed it would be more productive for a school to focus on the student first instead of working with a preset curriculum and structured classroom learning. They also believed that students learned more when they were engaged personally in meaningful work related to a chosen topic.
The LTI program Littky and Washor devised consists of activities for determining a student’s interests, strengths, talents, and professional goals; a personal learning plan developed by the student with input from an advisor, family members, and a mentor; and real-world internship experience with working adults.
It sounded like just the thing for Guise. Not only would he be able to put his interests to use for internship credit, but he would also be able to build strong relationships with a teacher (who The Met calls an advisor) and an on-the-job mentor. A strong guidance relationship had been missing from his previous school experience.
“At my old school, I was more of a number than a student,” Guise says. “Whether I passed or failed didn’t really matter to [my teachers]. They were authority figures I couldn’t talk to. Now, I refer to my advisor on a first-name basis and I feel like I can ask her for help.”
The Met considers strong relationships key to a student’s success at the school. Each campus (there are now six throughout Providence) is designed to hold no more than 100 students. When they enter their first year, students are placed in an advisory group of about 13-15 students. Instead of seeing six or seven instructors, students have one advisor, a certified teacher, who works intensively with the group for all four years. The advisories are then grouped together across grades to form eight larger groups, which work together on community service projects and discuss school governance. The advisories provide a small community of peers with whom students can discuss their work and receive feedback. The larger groups also allow for positive relationships between older and younger students.
While students at The Met forge bonds with their advisors and peers, they are also discovering interests that will fuel their projects and internship work. Guise dove right in with an internship at a Providence center for people recovering from mental illness. To prepare for the internship, Guise participated in a series of activities called group explorations, Family Learning Plan meetings, and “Who am I?” projects. Once he was sure of his target area, he worked with his advisor and an internship coordinator to schedule informational meetings with the center and an on-the-job shadow day.
These explorations, which often include travel in and outside of Providence, guest speakers, movies, and other discussion and research tools, confirmed his interest in mental health and social issues. Soon he was accruing over 300 hours of job experience a year. He helped run group therapy sessions and often had to work with the aid of an interpreter.
“It took a lot of commitment on my part,” Guise says. “It has been a big lesson in how to manage time.”
For students who are not as sure of their direction as Guise was, the group explorations help broaden their views of the world and lead them to discover the wide range of opportunities they may not have considered before. For example, a trip to the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence may provoke discussion about landscape architects working at the zoo or the people who develop the zoo’s publicity and advertising.
At the same time students are participating in group explorations, they are attending Family Learning Plan meetings. Students meet with their advisor and a member of their family at the beginning of each quarter to develop and update the student’s learning plan. This meeting can uncover valuable resources for the student within their family’s experiences. One student actually based a part of her learning plan on fibromyalgia, a condition with which her mom had been diagnosed. This component to The Met’s program ensures that family members remain active and involved with the student’s academic career.
Finally, the “Who am I?” projects help students gain a better understanding of themselves as they learn basic project and time management skills. These projects include autobiographical sketches, family histories, oral histories, and personal timelines. Each student chooses the project that best suits his or her experiences.
Throughout the exploration process, advisors support the students and have the freedom to guide each student at the appropriate pace. They schedule informational interviews and on-the-job shadowing opportunities for the student and work with the student’s internship mentor to build the skills needed for the student to reach his or her personal goals.
“I’m more of a manager of the student’s work,” says Laura Maxwell, an advisor at The Met. “I don’t have to nag about grammar or sentence structure. They know their work is going to be seen by larger audiences out there. They know it needs to be professional.”
Internships start at 5-10 hours a week for first year students and grow depending upon the student’s learning plan. Flexibility remains the hallmark of the LTI program. Students can revise their plan when necessary, and advisors can team up to bring a variety of expertise and perspectives to their students.
“It varies from one person to the next, what our strengths are,” Maxwell says. “Teachers have all sorts of life experiences, things they can contribute to an advisory. We rely on each other and pool our talents.”
Although the program of work is different from the traditional high school curriculum, The Met Center still holds its students to high standards of accountability. Because the student’s Learning Team (student, family members, mentor, and advisor) discusses the learning plan over a period of time, there is eventual agreement about what constitutes attainment of the student’s stated goals.
Students demonstrate their proficiency through exhibitions held four times a year. During the exhibition, students present evidence of learning and finished projects to a public panel of advisors, family members, mentors, fellow students, and community members who bring relevant field expertise to the topic. Guise, for example, conducted a study and workshops about the stigma of mental illness. Mental health providers then attended his exhibition and reviewed his methods and conclusions along with The Met faculty. In this way, the panel not only evaluates the work in regard to the previously established school standards but also against the standards of the field.
Students also create a portfolio of their work. Advisors and administrators at the school have forged relationships with colleges to explain this method and developed a special transcript that functions as a table of contents to the portfolio. The contents vary, but students have included videotapes of exhibitions, artwork, research reports, and narrative assessments written by the student’s advisor and mentor.
The combination of a learning plan, Learning Through Internship experience, and detailed portfolio work ensured that each student in The Met Center’s first graduating class was accepted to college. Nearly 70% of those accepted represented the first generation in their family to go on to higher education. Through the program they also cemented time management, presentation, public speaking, and research skills that will help them succeed in both their academic and professional endeavors.
Elliot Washor views this end as the school’s continuing mission.
“Our accountability to our students, their families, and to ourselves is to ensure that students graduate and are prepared to move on to higher education and the workforce,” he says. “It demonstrates how effective a school can be when the entire community is a resource for education.”