Bellevue’s Big Picture School turns the traditional middle and high school experience into one catered to each individual student. Whether that’s fostering internship time for students to teach at a martial arts studio, or developing a project based learning experience about different types of cells, students at Big Picture are able to explore their interests and passions in-depth, for the ultimate personalized learning experience.
The school’s community is small, allowing teachers and students alike to get to know one another.
“The structure of our school is very different,” said senior Kai Pacifico Eng. “Our teachers are a lot more involved in our lives; they care about us; they know who we are. We call them on a first name basis. It’s a lot more like family.”
Project Based Learning
“I came here mostly because of the project based learning,” said seventh grade student Dominic Salmieri. “I’m more of an in-depth learner and I like to really learn more below the surface, and learn more about a topic I’m interested in.”
Last year Salmieri worked on a project about cells, where students were able to research and show their findings however they wished.
“With the cell project, if I wanted to learn more about the difference between a normal cell and a cancerous cell then I could research that and incorporate more of that into my project,” said Salmieri. “I don’t just have to memorize the basic differences and then answer questions on a test for it.”
Classmate Mariam Koronfel agreed with Salmieri and added, “When you are doing a project you are kind of choosing your own pathway to go. The teacher is not directing you with every specific rule. Yes, there are rules, but the rules guide you to where to learn and what you want to learn.”
This year during a test Koronfel applied the principles of heat, which she had learned about in class, to a real life situation, by looking at baking cookies. She evaluated which baking rack would be ideal for cookies and determined that because hot air rises, the top shelf would be the best and fastest option, she said.
Every project based learning opportunity is giving Koronfel and Salmieri experience in different areas of interest.
Koronfel appreciates that Big Picture is providing her these experiences. “You know that if you just have one experience with something you might not like it, or dislike it. And that’s your first step to what you’re going to do in the future,” she said.
Project based learning continues in the high school years, and is a key part of the curriculum, said Eng. “The idea is to look at the big picture and prepare us for the real world,” he said. “The transition between middle school and high school is taking all the project based learning things and then putting them in a real world environment.”
Eng believes he is prepared for college next year because of the education at Big Picture. “They teach you everything you need in math, social studies, or science, they just teach you differently. They take a different angle at it,” he said.
Beginning in high school, each student at Big Picture has the opportunity to select an internship every semester related to their passions, interests, and potential career paths. Some choose tech fields, others prefer vet clinics, while others go the more artsy route such as performing arts centers. Whatever path students choose, they are able to go and explore the industry, network in the field and gain real world skills every Thursday.
During their internships, students work on a project on behalf of the agency or company they intern at. Examples of these projects range from improving recruiting processes to creating flyers and posters for marketing pieces.
Advisors are instrumental in helping students narrow down and select internships. Students create learning plans with their advisors, in which students develop what they want to get out of the school and then determine what they can do, what actions to take and what goals to set. They then put these learning plans into action by working with their parents, peers and advisors.
Sophomore Neo Smith began his journey at Big Picture in ninth grade and had the dream of pursuing art as a career.
“The first thing I did was I went and found completely art-based internships with different organization like the Seattle International Film Festival – I was a graphic designer there for my first semester,” said Smith. He liked aspects of the internship, but he also wanted to explore other options. His second internship landed him at his former middle school where he helped with art. This wasn’t the exact match he was looking for either, so this year he decided to branch out into a different type of art – martial arts at Seattle’s Aikikai.
At Aikikai, Smith works on his own martial arts skills in an adult class, and is an assistant teacher for a kids class in the evenings. During the afternoon, he is busy with administrative work, learning the ins and outs of a business, and he still taps into his creative mind by making posters and flyers for the studio. He’s learned through the various internships that he no longer wants to make art his main career path, but he still wants to incorporate elements of art into his work.
From the internship process Smith learned to never give up and keep networking, even when you get rejected. He interviewed at one company that wasn’t the right fit for him, but he asked the interviewer for other contacts and from that ask Smith was able to land his internship at the Seattle International Film Festival.
“I feel like if you get rejected or if you do get accepted always ask for more places from that person because someone in that field is going to know other people in that field, so you can find more internship possibilities off of them,” said Smith.
Personal & Professional Student Growth
Eng also started at Big Picture in ninth grade. In his four years he has grown personally and professionally, along with his goals which have evolved.
“When I came here I didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t really have any concept of my future or where I would go beyond the scope of high school,” he said. “I think Big Picture, very early on, they helped me say ‘what do you want to do in life and how can you achieve that?’ That was really vital and kind of helped me shape my vision and where I wanted to go.”
Eng began his journey with an interest in activism, and through the internship program, the focus has steered him more towards journalism and communications.
His first internship was at a civil rights organization where they talked about activism and having a voice in society. His second internship involved teaching people activism, and how to have a voice in society. Third, Eng interned at a film studio, which is where he developed the idea of how he could project his voice out and say what he needed to say.
During Eng’s journey, he has had the opportunity to intern at a variety of sites. “They’ve all added a little piece to the puzzle of what I ultimately want to do in life,” he said.
As he begins his next chapter next year, Eng hopes to meld these interests together, and go into journalism with a focus on activism. He credits Big Picture’s support and guidance in helping him determine what he wants to do.
The school’s project based learning and internship program provides students with experiences that give each of them a head start and a sense of direction as they enter college.
Exhibitions are also a key part of the internship process.
“Our exhibition is a presentation looking at the grand scale across the year of everything that we’ve done in our internship throughout the year, and how it aligns with our learning goals and how it connects with the organization itself and what they need,” said Eng. Students, parents, mentors, advisors, peers and others come to experience the exhibitions, which are held twice each year.
Eng is looking ahead to graduation in six months, and he is grateful for his experiences at Big Picture.
“I found a community where I could be at home and I could be myself and find out who I was,” he said.
Big Picture has grown from a school of 122 students in 2011 at its inception, to more than 350 students this year. As a choice school in the district, Big Picture welcomes district students to join the tight-knit community by attending an information session, applying to the school and upon application acceptance attending a shadow day to make sure it’s the right fit.
“A Big Picture student is someone who wants to learn. It’s as simple as that,” said Eng. “It doesn’t matter if you’re introverted, or extraverted because the teachers, the people around you, they cater to that. They help you out. They care for you. It’s not about fitting a mold, it’s about what you want to do. It’s about not even having a clear vision. It’s about having the willingness to learn.”