The world is their classroom

28th January 2005 at 00:00
There are no set subjects or periods. Pupils spend up to three days learning jobs. And it works. Stephen Phillips reports from a tough school where three out of five pupils go on to pass degrees

You need good luck ordering a taxi from the Met's flagship campus in Providence, Rhode Island. Cabbies are wary of picking up from the school's address in the run-down, crime-ridden South Side. Unlike the hospital and community college next door, the state-of-the-art Met campus isn't enclosed behind high walls. The four-school complex is open to the community. The seamless integration is more than a design feature; it's a philosophy.

Staff across the city-wide cluster of six small secondary schools say the Met is wherever pupils happen to be learning. This could be at a zoo, radio station, bank or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to give some recent examples of the work placements pupils attend instead of lessons.

The Met has pioneered perhaps the ultimate personalised instruction model. Pupils craft their own curricula, following their passions, then learn on the job under community mentors.

On a cold December afternoon, 17-year-old Bethany Valentine's classroom is the physical rehabilitation unit of Rhode Island's Memorial Hospital, where she plays catch with a patient trying to recover movement following a stroke.

"It's an opportunity to get up close and personal rather than just reading about it in a book," says her mentor, Katie Lyons, a physical therapist. "I just want to do anything in healthcare, to see all the possibilities," says Bethany.

Pupils can be out of school for up to three days a week, but Met teachers, dubbed advisers, keep close tabs, checking in once a week. Bethany tells Scott Weber, her adviser, what she's learned that week. Her assignment is to produce a brochure on physical therapy. They discuss how the project will straddle the thinking skills the Met emphasises.

Mr Weber is looking for Bethany to demonstrate empirical reasoning, for instance, by testing a hypothesis. Quantitative reasoning might involve distilling data into a graph, he suggests. Then there's social reasoning.

He wants the project to set physical therapy in "the big picture and explain its social significance".

Pupils stay with the same adviser for all four years of their schooling.

The advisers work with pupils one-on-one, help them focus on their interests, oversee projects and delineate learning goals. Pupils amass a portfolio that they're grilled on, like PhD candidates, by a panel of staff, parents and peers each term.

But the Met stands out as much for what it doesn't do as what it does.

There are no set subjects, lesson periods, year groups, bells or even formal break-times. After lunch on Friday, the timetable is blocked out for open reading. Quiet descends as pupils retire to their classroom with a good book.

Much of what's taught in regular schools is superfluous, , says Dennis Littky, the co-founder and director, who thinks many school conventions are "institutional". Worse, they're out of touch with pupil lives, alienating many and driving them to switch off.

"I don't believe there's one subject kids have to know," he says "The (abiding) description of school among students is 'boring'." One in three secondary school pupils drops out, according to the Manhattan Institute, a public policy think tank . Among ethnic minorities, the rate is one in two.

"Some New York schools start with 800 students and graduate 80," says Mr Littky. "There are more black males in jail than at university. You don't tinker around the edges when you're losing your urban youth."

Pupils learn best, hands-on, in practical settings with real-life consequences, rather than being taught abstract principles, says Mr Littky.

When learning is made relevant, at-risk pupils can be convinced to "buy into" their education and future, he adds.

Eight years since it started, the Met has achieved impressive results among disaffected inner-city communities. More than 80 per cent reach college, from where three-quarters graduate. Last year, the drop-out rate at the Met was 6 per cent compared with 34 per cent across Providence schools in general.

Thanks to a grant from Bill Gates of Microsoft, there is now a network of Met clones springing up. By 2008, it is expected there will be 68.

Enrolment is capped at 150 pupils per school.

Smallness is key, says Danique Dally, principal of the Met's original central Providence site. Mr Dally is on first name terms with all his pupils."Relationships come first," he says."It's hard to teach someone you don't know. When the numbers creep up, you're just teaching the student the subject, not making (them) the subject."

But the Met's model is controversial. Critics complain it's slack, nebulous and skimps on basics, noting that, although the Met excels on "warm and fuzzy" yardsticks such as pupil satisfaction, its performance is less spectacular on standardised tests.

"Our kids have never done great on tests," Mr Littky concedes. But, he says, the Met more than holds its own against schools serving comparable pupils and has markedly improved its scores recently. He's unperturbed by the flak, setting little store by standardised tests, except as diagnostic tools, contending they're too simplistic to provide a meaningful single parameter.

More important, he says, is the Met's record on sending poor pupils on to higher education. Still, maths and science - where mastering a body of knowledge is perhaps most critical to progress - are seen by some as an Achilles heel of the Met approach.

This is what critics focus on, says Michael Lerner, a quantitative reasoning co-ordinator, . "They don't care that students haven't memorised battles; they care students haven't got trigonometry."

Mr Lerner says his concern "is that kids can use maths in ways that are useful in the real world. We don't spend a lot of time on how to factor polynomials."

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