Hillsboro Big Picture School looks to next generation of students
Two years ago, Hillsboro's alternative high school launched an experiment.
What if students didn't have to go from class period to class period? What if they could focus on their classwork not by studying for exams but by rolling up their sleeves and working in the real world?
The Hillsboro Big Picture School launched two years ago at Miller Education Center, 440 S.E. Oak St. The school works with students who fall outside the traditional high school model.
The school is holding several open houses over the next two months, offering a look at the school's model, for interested families, with a focus on incoming ninth graders.
There are more than 80 Big Picture schools across the U.S., Europe and Asia, but Hillsboro is Oregon's only location. The schools vary widely in size and style, but each have a core philosophy of student-led learning. Classes are small, enrolling 15 to 18 students who spend all four years of high school together.
Under the Big Picture model, students decide what to study — and how. By focusing on their interests and career goals, students are able to get career-readiness training and focus on their education, said school counselor and internship coordinator Sara Franklin.
"(It's for) students who are looking for a different high school experience," Franklin said. "Something that's smaller, more hands-on, students who have passions and interests — especially career interests that they want to explore."
Two days each week, the students spend the day at an internship, getting hands-on experience working at businesses in Hillsboro and the greater Portland area.
"They actually get to go try it out and meet experts in the field that they are really passionate about."
The goal, Franklin said, is to help students who haven't succeeded in a traditional school setting feel connected to their community through internships, working with the students' interests and passions to find a good fit for them. Current students are working at local businesses, elementary schools, the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce and assisting in political campaigns, among many other places, Franklin said.
"We have really seen a welcomeness from the community to embrace our kids," she said, "It's not the norm for businesses to take on 14 and 15-year olds."
There are currently around 50 freshmen and sophomore students enrolled in the Big Picture School. Franklin said the school's smaller classroom sizes and an overall smaller facility help students feel more connected to their teachers and advisors. Unlike at other schools, students have a say in how they are learning, and are able to learn by focusing on areas they are already interested in, Franklin said. The internships give students a sense of what it's like to be a working professional.
Since starting the transition from the Miller Education Center model to Big Picture two years ago, Hillsboro's director of alternative programs and the school's principal Gregg O'Mara said he has seen a difference in students.
"I think there's always a benefit when students get out and interact with adults in the business world, there is more self-advocacy," he said. "We don't see a difference in the type of students we serve, but we definitely see it in their level of self-advocacy and self-confidence."
O'Mara brought the Big Picture to the school two years ago. For decades, Miller Education Center has worked with students who have fallen through the cracks, but said the school operated like a traditional high school. Big Picture is a new way to inspire students, he said.
There will be three open house sessions: Thursday, March 7, Thursday, April 4, and Thursday, April 18, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the school, to get an overview of the program, meet staff and families, tour classrooms and learn about the application process.
By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
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