Alex Dombi, 17, a South Burlington High School student, wasn’t feeling engaged in traditional coursework freshman year.

“I was bored in my conventional classes,” Dombi said. “I wasn’t challenged in a way that was exciting.”

After meeting with a guidance counselor, Dombi discovered the school’s alternative education program, Big Picture. Today, they have logged over 250 hours of internship work and taken on a senior thesis capstone that entails creating a collaborative learning system for Vermont’s public school districts. Moreover, Dombi is meeting the state’s Proficiency Based Learning requirements that are mandated for graduation. 

Big Picture Learning is an international organization that was founded at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Rhode Island in 1995. It strives to give high school students an alternative learning curriculum that uses hands-on projects, group work and independent study to prepare them for both college and career. Today, over 65 schools in the U.S. offer Big Picture programs, with other participating schools around the globe. 

“The idea is that learning can happen beyond the four walls of the school,” said South Burlington High School Big Picture Program Coordinator Kevin Downey. 

In Vermont, it lends itself to the Agency of Education’s Flexible Pathways program. Pathways, established in 2013 via Act 77, prepares students for postsecondary life through curricula that acknowledge different learning styles, individual goals and abilities, according to the agency. 

At South Burlington High School, Big Picture is nothing new. Students there have had the opportunity to enroll in the program for the past nine years. On average, about 20-30 pupils take advantage of it annually, according to Downey.  

South Burlington students have done everything from creating an immersive immigration simulation – meant to increase empathy among U.S. citizens for immigrants going through the naturalization process – to creating non petroleum-based cosmetics. 

One student is even attempting to build a tiny house they intend to live in after graduation. That student used computer-animated design technology to lay out the home, and is partnering with Yestermorrow Design/Build School, of Waitsfield, to bring it to fruition. Students receive $75-100 from the high school budget to fund their projects. Any expenses beyond that must be financed through fundraising and grant writing, Downey said.

“[Big Picture works] for a lot of our students who are smart, creative, talented students but who want a different path than the conventional, sitting in classes,” Downey said. “For some students [conventional classes] can seem passive.”

Students can apply for Big Picture at any time between freshman and senior year. Those admitted carry out a program of studies that meets five proficiencies, including: clear and effective communication; self-direction; creative and practical problem solving; responsible and involved citizenship and informed and integrative thinking. 

They also conduct five Big Picture capstone projects which require them to complete an exhibition, Vermont Science Fair experiment, major research paper, service thesis project and apprenticing portfolio containing learning completed through internships and community-based work. Big Picture students can also take up to four blocks of traditional classes and are required to do some conventional coursework like math, Downey said. At the beginning of each year students meet with their advisors to set individualized learning goals as well. 

While Big Picture students don’t earn classic letter grades, they must effectively demonstrate mastery of the proficiencies before graduating.  

For Downey, heading the program is rewarding because it’s a way to recognize the unique learning styles of students and to encourage them to pursue their passions. To skeptics, he says Big Picture is effective because it mimics the work-world. 

“Most folks in their careers have projects that they take on. It’s never just, ‘turn in this worksheet,’” he said. “What we’re creating is a system where students are able to manage their time, think critically, work with others and be able to take things on as a project.”

Next year, Dombi will be a senior at South Burlington High School. Dombi intends to start collegiate studies early by enrolling in courses at the Community College of Vermont. From there, Dombi hopes to become an early education teacher and, of course, teach young students via an alternative learning model.

But first, Dombi must complete senior thesis work. Over the past month Dombi developed a project called “Murmurations.”

The project matches Vermont public schools who struggle with an area of curriculum instruction – such as incorporating Pathways – with other schools that thrive in that area so that educators can learn from each other’s programs. 

“‘Murmurations’ is the word for starlings following in each other’s paths,” they said. “If we follow each other’s school-paths and we follow the ones that are doing it well ... [we’ll] raise each other up.”

Currently, Dombi’s working with a community partner to oversee the project. They hope to have at least five schools pilot the program, then present the project at a larger conference for feedback. 

Through Big Picture, Dombi says they have “gotten all the experience [they] need to have to be a functional adult by the age of 17.”

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