One Kid At A Time: Big Lessons From A Small School
reviewed by Nicole E. Holland - 2003
One Kid At A Time is a testimony of what can be accomplished when a small, personalized learning community challenges youth and adults to think beyond the boundaries of academic standardization and consider the liberating world of authentic, engaging, and limitless learning opportunities. Elliot Levine offers an account of the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (the Met), a small high school in Providence, Rhode Island where each student is connected with a team of adults who turn student interests into a range of learning opportunities. Levine positions the Met as a model for education reform and documents the school’s progressive approach to learning where educational objectives are used to create individualized student learning plans and to evaluate students’ academic and social development. Levine’s connection with, and affection for, the Met exudes throughout the text as he documents the elaborate efforts of adults to structure a range of meaningful educational opportunities that may begin in the school, but have the potential to take students around the world. And while the story is inspiring, it is lacking the critical analysis that would make it most useful for practitioners, researchers, and policy makers.
The Met opened in 1996 and, at the time of data collection, enrolled 200 students across grades 9-12. Demographics revealed a student body that was 41% White, 38% Latino, 18% African American, and 3% Asian American. Twenty-five percent of the students’ parents have college degrees (or more) and 50% of the students come from families with incomes that allow them to qualify for subsidized lunch. This background is important because schools with similar demographics are often characterized by low levels of student persistence, engagement, and achievement. However, Levine paints a different picture. He describes the Met as an inner-city high school with a 7% absentee rate and an 8% dropout rate, which are both approximately one-third of the absentee and dropout rates of other Providence high schools. Further, each of the 46 students in the first graduation class was accepted into college and collectively the first graduation class qualified for $400,000 in scholarships.
The Met has learning domains in which students must improve over time; however, the ways in which each student meets the school’s educational objectives are unique for each student. Levine exemplifies this in the first chapter where he describes three students from the first graduating class who had very different Met experiences; nevertheless, it is the common experiences of Met students that contribute to the school’s success. One of these experiences is being immersed in a community of adults who know, respect, and rely upon students in a way that is not commonplace in traditional high schools. Levine recounts episodes where the school leaders drive students home or ask pointed questions about the welfare of students’ family members. There are also descriptions of teachers/advisors who give guidance to, and receive advice from, students. Then there are mentors/internship employers who rely upon students, despite their age, to provide crucial work related functions that influence the organization’s bottom line. And, there are parents who provide evidence of their children’s newly-found commitment to, and enthusiasm in, learning.
The core of the text is devoted to the second common student experience that reveals the many ways the Met promotes “learning through interests.” These interests are often discovered through a series of experiences, trips, and interest-exploration activities, and are developed into meaningful, intellectual, learning opportunities. Learning through internships (LTIs), a major goal of the Met, requires students to research people, businesses, and organizations that are doing work that they find interesting. If the student can make a valuable contribution to the internship site, as well as to his/her education, then an LTI experience is developed. Interests that are not turned into LTIs can result in service learning, independent projects, or a range of other activities. While these opportunities have helped students develop academic skills, practical knowledge, and work experience, it is the responsibility of the students’ learning team to ensure that these opportunities will fulfill the students’ annual and grade-specific expectations and result in the requisite skills of a high school graduate.
This book provides a public forum where the Met faculty, and in particular, the school leaders thoughtfully and critically comment on concerns, struggles, and obstacles that new, small, progressive schools face. Levine also presents some issues that parents, practitioners, and policy makers may raise, such as how the Met fares in comparison to other Providence high schools, what types of supports are/were necessary to establish and sustain the school, and what is the range of outcomes that should be considered in order to determine student success? As a laboratory/demonstration school it is critical to understand key features that contribute to the Met’s success. One must acknowledge that while the Met is not a charter school it operates very similarly to one with certain freedom from state mandates and considerable local, school-based control. The role of the principals/directors is much more than that of instructional leaders, but also includes community-building, fund-raising, marketing, and public relations. The commitment of the school leaders and faculty extend beyond the traditional school day and week, and also extend beyond the confines of the school to include off-site locations. And there is a heightened sense of responsibility and involvement of parents, community members, and internship-mentors in creating, developing, and evaluating students’ learning plans.
Although there is a range of interesting and important information covered in this book, Levine’s account of the Met more closely resembles favorable journalism than education research. This is unfortunate because this work has the potential to inform several bodies of relevant literature that are regrettably absent from the contextual framework of the book. For instance, there is little mention of the school size literature (e.g. Lee and Smith, 1995; 1997; Lee Smerdon, Alfeld-Liro, and Brown, 2000), and there is no mention of the national small schools movement although there are several articles, reports, and books that would have contributed to a practical context for appreciating this work (e.g. Yaunches, 2002). In addition to providing a useful background for the reader, this framework would have helped to highlight the contributions that the Met makes to the literature by not simply concentrating on reducing the number of students enrolled, but by changing the nature of teaching and learning along the lines of what Fred Newmann and his associates (e.g. Newmann and Wehlage, 1985; Newmann and Associations, 1996) refer to as authentic pedagogy and authentic academic performance. Lastly, this background may have empowered Levine to forefront his own analysis of the Met’s intra-school struggles and inspired him to provide a more in-depth discussion of the complexities of being a charter-like, lab school.
One Kid at A Time is a story that needs to be told. It is the story of what education should be when there are concentrated efforts to leave no children behind. It is the story of what can happen when adults know youth by their abilities and potentials, and when students co-construct their learning experiences with adults who are invested in students’ academic and social development. The Met’s combination of engaged students, committed adults, and a unique academic-vocational curriculum has been woven into a story that should make students, parents, educators, and policy makers expect and demand more out of school reform.
Lee, V. and Smith, J. (1995). "Effects of High School
Restructuring and Size Gains in Achievement and Engagement for
Early Secondary School Students." Sociology of
Education, 68(4), pp 241-270.
Yaunches, Alison. (April, 2002). Small Works: Schools in Three States Showcase Virtues of Small Size. Rural Roots, 3 (2). Retrieved from http://www.ruralchallengepolicy.org/rr_v3no2.html - small