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School Features Real-World Learning, No Grades

Apr 25, 2005 (All Things Considered)

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Vimar Rodriguez, left, helps a nurse give a shot to a 14-year-old patient.

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It's hard to imagine a school with no tests, no grades and no classes. But those familiar elements of education are missing at two dozen Big Picture schools in six states, each with no more than 120 students.

They emphasize work in the real world, portfolios, oral presentations and intense relationships between students and advisers. Margot Adler visits one of the schools, called The Met, the 10-year-old model for the schools, in Providence, R.I.

Students are encouraged to discover their passions, interning two days a week with mentors in the community who relate those passions to the real world. The student might work at a hospital, a bakery, or an architectural firm. School projects are designed by the mentor, the adviser and the student together — and are presented orally, along with a portfolio, every nine weeks.

Vimar Rodriguez, an 11th grader interested in medicine, has a neighborhood pediatrician as a mentor. Dr. Hector Cordero says she knew little when she started interning at his office.

"I think she's learning a lot," Cordero says. "I think it is motivating her to go to medical school, which is the most important thing."

Rodriguez contrasts her own life with those of her friends at other schools. "They don't know [what college they are going to], if they are going to get financial aid, and here I can look at different opportunities and different choices."

The school measures its success in many ways — standardized achievement scores are higher than those at the three largest Providence high schools — but parents are most excited by these statistics: Almost every senior gets into college, 80 percent go to college, and five years later, most of those students are still in college or have graduated.

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