Three years ago, Bellevue Big Picture School opened its doors with a focus on personalized, interest-based, community-based learning. In June of next year, the school will graduate its first class of seniors, the same students who helped launch the new school as ninth graders in the fall of 2011.

Earlier this year, we profiled the school’s Middle School Advisory classes, which are unique to Bellevue Big Picture. A major component of the classes is college and career exploration. That exploration continues in high school as, once a week, students trade the classroom for the “real world” of work.

“It’s top secret.”

Bellevue Big Picture junior Alex Demmler can’t share much about his internship at product design company D.A. International, but it sounds intriguing. “I’m allowed to say that I’m working on developing a kitchen appliance. I’m not allowed to say what it does or what it looks like.”

mentorship-02Every Thursday, Demmler and his fellow high school students at Bellevue Big Picture take their learning off-campus to internships at businesses, non-profit organizations and educational institutions across Bellevue and the Seattle area.

Beginning in ninth grade, all Bellevue Big Picture students take an internship prep class. For the first 10 weeks of the school year, they’re on campus full time. They spend that time completing an in-depth interest exploration, looking at different careers they may be interested in. They write their resume and participate in mock job interviews, where professionals come to the school and interview students so they can get a feel of what interviewing is like and get feedback on how they did.

Early on, students also set up informational interviews with professionals working in a variety careers they’re interested in. Later, they’ll conduct job shadows to get a better idea of the day-to-day responsibilities of that career. With luck, one of those shadowing experiences will become their first internship. School and friend connections also help. Sophomore Ayah Idris landed her internship with University of Washington Genome Sciences Education Outreach through a friend’s mom, who works there.

Once students secure an internship, that’s where they go every Thursday. They spend the entire day at the job site instead of at school. The internship is not getting coffee and making photocopies. In order to get credit for the internship, students must do a project that connects something that’s relevant at the job site to back to their schoolwork. Idris is taking biology in school, and using it on the job. “What I’m learning now is directly connected to what’s going on in my internship because they’re creating biology curriculum for schools,” she explains. Idris takes a closer look at the curriculum, helps make sure it’s understandable to students her age and also goes through the actual labs and makes sure they work. Her project is creating instructional videos for students.

mentorship-01Demmler spends his time working with computer design modeling, creating a 3D model of the prototype of his top secret appliance. “I’ll take a look at some of the other prototypes that have already been done and some of the motors and pumps that we’re using and try to figure out how to put those in the object to get it to work right,” Demmler explains. “It’s like Lego pieces, but you get to decide which shape bricks you want.” He says in addition to having fun, this kind of experience will look great in the portfolio he’ll need to submit when applying to design colleges.

Advisors go out in the field on Thursdays to check in with students and meet with mentors. At the end of every quarter, students report back to a panel of adults, their advisor and peers. Each semester, they do a larger exhibition showcasing their project. “It’s a lot of work,” shares Idris with a laugh. Demmler agrees. “I had a PowerPoint with 28 slides, with a lot of pictures. We’re trying to show basically everything that we’ve done, what we’ve learned and what we’ve created as our project.”

Over the past three years, Bellevue Big Picture students have had a wide variety of internships. They’ve worked in an architectural firm and a software company, at the University of Washington Autism Center and Pacific Science Center, on a gubernatorial campaign, in an underage tobacco sting and with general contractors, an ophthalmologist, a lawyer, a judge and even a horse whisperer. Students are also placed in district schools and departments.

Bellevue Big Picture relies heavily on community support and local businesspeople to give students a taste of “the real world.” “The community has been fantastic,” says Principal Bethany Spinler. The school is always looking for more outside experts to speak to students. “Come to our school and be a speaker, share what you’re passionate about. Share your journey of how you got to your career.” It’s a one-time commitment of an hour which could have a huge impact on a student interested in a similar field.

Often, that one-hour talk leads to even greater involvement. Students may ask the speaker if they’d be open to a 15 minute interview at their job site or if they could shadow them for a day. Other volunteers work directly with teachers to plan projects and be real-world experts. “They’re the thought partners with the teacher,” Spinler explains. “They add expertise and value to the project, which is important to make the curriculum more real.”

For Bellevue Big Picture students, the big payoff is getting hands-on experience and exposure to a tremendous variety of careers, based on their interests. “I’ve been really interested in the medical field,” says Idris. “I really wanted to get a head start and see what it’s like and if I really like it. So far, it’s been really awesome!”

  • To learn more about getting involved as a volunteer or mentor at Bellevue Big Picture, contact Principal Bethany Spinler at [email protected]

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The Bellevue School District acknowledges that we learn, work, live and gather on the Indigenous Land of the Coast Salish peoples, specifically the Duwamish and Snoqualmie Tribes. We thank these caretakers of this land, who have lived and continue to live here, since time immemorial.