Students drive learning at Bitney Prep High School |

Students drive learning at Bitney Prep High School

Josh Pryor, left, Chris Miller and Ezra Echols, all freshman at Bitney College Prep High School, work together during an advisory period on Aug. 30.
Emily Lavin/ |

Visitors to Bitney College Prep High School aren’t likely to find students behind desks, textbooks open, eyes fixed on a teacher lecturing toward the front of the room.

Instead, students are more likely to be gathered around tables, working on a variety of tasks. One might be studying Spanish using the online language instructor Duolingo. Others might be working through a math lesson from a Sierra College class, or completing a multimedia English project on a topic of their choosing. At least once a week, students might not be on campus at all, but instead out in the community logging hours at an internship.

It’s all part of Bitney’s efforts to adopt Big Picture Learning. The education model emphasizes personalized learning and real-world experiences, striving to put students in charge of what they learn, and how they learn it.

“We empower them with the independence and the responsibility to guide their own education,” said Russ Jones, the director at Bitney.

Bitney, which has about 95 students enrolled, officially joined the Big Picture Learning network of schools this fall, making it one of 65 such schools nationwide. Big Picture Learning, a Rhode Island-based charter group, was established in 1995 with the goal of redesigning traditional learning models.

Central to the Big Picture Learning philosophy is a focus on individual students, with schools finding out “who you are right now, what interests you and how can we weave that into your educational program, so that you’re motivated and so that school means something to your life plan,” Jones said.

Bitney in recent years has emphasized student learning beyond the traditional classroom environment, offering electives in hands-on subjects like sustainable design and video production, and launching an internship program to enable students to pursue career interests. After looking more closely at a Big Picture Learning school in Sacramento, Bitney decided to fully embrace the model, Jones said.

As a Big Picture Learning school, Bitney’s program still meets California graduation requirements, as well as entry requirements for the California State University and University of California systems, Jones said. But for students at Bitney, the school day under Big Picture Learning looks different than it might at other high schools.

Bitney students are typically on campus four days a week, and spend one weekday at a local internship. The school has partnered with a variety of businesses and organizations, including Lazy Dog Chocolateria, the Grass Valley Police Department, AJA Video and SoundCheck Music Center, to provide students with on-the-job experience.

Student work on campus is grounded in advisories, or small learning communities.

At Bitney, students are grouped in advisories by grade level, and are supervised by a teacher who works closely with the group and with individual students. With the help of their advisor, students identify interests and develop project-based assignments across core subjects without being constrained to a block schedule or uniform lessons, though students can choose to take a more traditional class or supplement their schedule with classes offered at Sierra College, if they prefer.

“It’s a lot more self-driven and up to you to manage your timeline,” said Keegan Cook, a junior at Bitney.

Big Picture Learning is a shift for Bitney students. But many students agreed the change is a welcome one that allows them to focus on work that is relevant and engaging — something they haven’t always had the opportunity to do in class.

“We like learning, but we don’t like learning what school has told us to learn or in the way school has taught us,” said junior Kassidy Kelly.

Implementing the Big Picture Learning philosophy doesn’t just take buy-in from students, but from Bitney’s teachers as well. Jones acknowledged that the transition is a major one that requires staff to let go of what had been their primary role — developing lesson plans and delivering information to students — in favor of becoming a coach, assisting students in taking control of their studies.

That transition is a “huge undertaking,” said teacher Daniel Elkin, who this year is serving as an advisor to a group of the school’s freshmen.

“I’ve effectively given up my entire curriculum,” Elkin said.

“I haven’t been this stressed since my first year of teaching.”

But that stress is ultimately worth it, he said.

“I believe the relationships we will build at this school are going to be transformational for everybody,” Elkin said.

Teacher Scott Young, who is advising the school’s juniors, said he already feels like he is making more significant connections with students under Big Picture Learning, something he didn’t always have time to do previously.

“This is the kind of teaching I’ve always wanted to do,” Young said.

Bitney’s long-term vision is to ensure that when students graduate high school, they are better prepared to take their next step, whether that’s toward college, vocational training or something else, Jones said.

He believes Big Picture Learning can find its niche among the variety of educational programs offered at schools in Nevada County.

Education “is not one-size-fits all,” Jones said. “I think there a population in this community that will really benefit from this model.”

To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email or call 530-477-4230.

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