San Diego Met is part of the Big Picture Learning global network of schools, is a district Charter School and is in its 11th year. The school is located on the campus of San Diego Mesa College. The school’s curriculum is highly personalised and student centred allowing students to pursue their interests supported by their advisor. I spent the morning at San Diego Met speaking to the principal, the director of internships, the school counsellor, a senior advisory teacher and a few students.
This was my first visit to an American school, so it took me a while and a lot of questions to find out anything from how SAT’s to GPA’s mean to finding out the difference between a junior and a sophomore. However, the biggest takeaways from my visit today was the personalised aspects of the school. Talking to the students they highly valued that their school and in particular their how much their ‘advisor’ plays a role in their personal development. One of Big Pictures distinguishers is ‘one student at a time’ and I definitely saw aspects of this in my short visit.
San Diego Met is a small school with about 15 students in an advisory and two advisories per year group. It is a grade 9-12 school. It was when I got talking to students in an advisory session for a k10 group that I really began to understand what they are and how they work. An advisory is a group of 15 students roughly led by an advisor. They spend 2 periods per day in their advisory group and will stay in this group across the 4 years of High School with the same ‘advisor’. The advisor’s role is to create individualised learning plans for the students and develop highly personalised and differentiated approaches to advisory sessions. The advisor also teachers History and English and will integrate the two subjects and teach English through the study of History. For example through socratic discussions around texts and creating assignments and projects that connect to the common core standards for both subjects. Often there will be a choice of activities from presentations to dioramas. Teachers and students have a high degree of autonomy to make advisory sessions rigorous and engaging.
Students will spend 3 days a week in advisory and then taught academic subjects such as Math and Science. The other 2 days they spend on internship. The school has developed a vast network of links to business and other organisations over its 11 years. Its when I talk to a student called Judge that his real passion shows. The rich opportunities for students at San Diego Met are highlighted to me through Judge, he has been a piano teacher, worked in PR for public theatre and worked in guitar design in previous internships. As I am speaking to him he is designing a website for a collaborative project where he is working with college students on an aquaponics project. He is excited in anticipation of working at San Diego State university in the summer on an internship at a genetics institute. There internships alongside his learning in biology have given him an enthusiasm for his learning and a realistic map to his future.
On top of this, the school’s close links to the college means that High School students access 3 courses a year to prepare them for the next steps. They take college prep courses in the college on the skills required such as effective communication. They take advanced English course and an optional Chemistry class.
I have to be thinking all the time about the context in the UK. On one hand I advocate the highly personalised approach these students receive. How is this approach scaled up to larger schools such as my own? Also I would say the testing in the UK through GCSE and A level are much higher stakes than state tests and SATs in the US. We need to think of creative ways to ‘deliver’ the broad content knowledge required for GCSE/A level but at the same time ensuring that students are engaged and prepared for university and beyond rather than being spoon fed.
There are take aways from the advisory in particular. Where in the UK students might have a form tutor for a relatively small amount of time and even then that valuable time might be wasted. Form tutors may have too many students in 25-30 a group. The conditions to allow the teacher to know the student and be enabled to advise students effectively are minimal. It might be difficult to apply a full advisory model to the UK when students have so many subjects they need to study for GCSE. However, there is scope for subject disciplines to be taught in pairs to draw out depth of knowledge, understanding and skills. Perhaps a form tutor model with smaller groups of 15 and less and also teaching those students within their own discipline would be a good start.
The power of internships and real world connections are also powerful. To take 2 days a week from curriculum time in the UK would be asking a lot. However, the authentic challenges presented to students do need thinking about not just through superficial connections to the real world, but giving students rich experiences in the real world. The role of the school in the wider community is important and developing opportunities for internships in year 9 through an intern project for two weeks perhaps could be an option. Students could job shadow and exhibit what they found out, what they did and reflect on the extent to which they enjoyed the experience to their peers for example. This could be a real driver and link to academic success. Finally, schools that have connections to universities could further exploit these links by potentially allowing A level students extra credit and opportunities to engage with excellence. If universities could offer a bespoke course for A level students to attend on a monthly basis and be awarded credits for this could be one option.