PROVIDENCE, R.I. — When she wanted to be a detective, Carleen Mylers studied criminal justice and took a job as an investigator. When she thought she might become a lawyer, she worked in family court. Now that she has an internship in a local middle school, people are asking if she plans to go into teaching.
No, Mylers says. What she is actually doing is spying, using her observations as fodder for a novel.
"I look at the kids who are always reading, walking around with a book in their hands," Mylers said. "I know my novel will have a character like that."
For Mylers, 17, the diverse workplace experience is part of her curriculum at the Met School -- a thriving public high school here that caters to a largely poor and minority student population.
The 9-year-old Met School defies convention, with no letter grades, no required classes, and "advisors" instead of teachers who work with the same small group of students for four consecutive years. Instead of taking tests, the 580 students present "exhibitions" of their work.
With 100% of its seniors accepted each year to college, the Met's "one student at a time" approach to learning has caught the attention of educators around the country.
The success of the school also prompted the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund a nationwide network of similar schools known as the Big Picture.
Awards of about $15 million made the Big Picture Company "our largest alternative school grantee," said Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education for the Gates Foundation.
"There simply are kids that are wired differently or have had different life experiences. They need schools that are highly individualized and highly supportive," Vander Ark said. "The Met certainly is both. We take people there just to blow apart their preconceptions of how a school ought to work."
Among the 18 Big Picture campuses established in the last two years are schools in Oakland, San Diego, Sacramento and rural El Dorado, Calif. Dennis Littky, founder of the Met School and co-director of the Big Picture Company, said a school in Santa Monica also was under discussion.
The conventional U.S. high school, Littky said, is little more than "an early 20th century assembly line."
"The word most kids use when they talk about high school is 'boring,' " Littky said. "What a shame."
Littky began formulating his ideas about redesigning American high schools while serving as a fellow at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. It was there that Rhode Island Education Commissioner Peter McWalters approached Littky about setting up a new school for grades nine to 12. The formal name of the school was to be the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, but McWalters told Littky he wanted a college preparatory school, not a vocational training facility.
"I thought, this is my chance," Littky said. "I've always wanted to work with the poor, and with kids who are thought of as underdogs. I wanted to do something different, something that would be best for the kids."
The result was a team approach in which parents, advisors and students were equal partners. Students learn not from textbooks or lesson plans but from individualized, real-world experience: internships that take them to a workplace at least two days a week. The school focuses on writing, including a 75-page autobiography that every student must complete as a senior project.
The Met, where more than 80% of students qualify for federal meal subsidies, has the highest student retention level (98%) and the highest college placement level of any high school in the state. The campus functions with the same $11,000-per-student allocation that Rhode Island authorizes for every high school, McWalters said.
Among five classes that have graduated, 75% have some kind of college degree or certificate or are still in school.
"I am not sure [the Met] is a panacea. Right now, to me, it is an alternative," McWalters said. Even in a "data-driven, results-oriented era," he said, "there is still this kind of 'there has got to be something wrong' kind of reaction when you talk about the Met."
Indeed, the school ended up on a national watch list after faring poorly last year on standardized tests required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Met students did better this year, and the school came off the list.
For Littky, the low test scores were almost a reverse badge of honor. He started the Met by recruiting middle school students who were faring so poorly that they were likely not to attend high school at all. Met students now are selected by lottery.
The student body is about 40% Latino, 30% African American, 26% white and 4% other ethnicities.
"I believe that there is not one set of subject matter that all human beings need to know," Littky said. "There is so much knowledge out there. The key is loving to learn, finding knowledge and then applying that knowledge.
"I am fighting standardized tests," he said. "And I am fighting No Child Left Behind."