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ECS Offers Unconventional Education in Big Picture Learning Program

by Jeff Cole

A traditional seven-hour school day in which students journey from classroom to classroom, listen to lectures, jot down notes and pour over several homework assignments may suffice for many pupils.

But for others, this can be a challenge.

According to, one student drops out of school every 12 seconds in America for one reason or another. One plausible factor could be difficulty in adhering to what may be considered a “conventional school day.”

Chris McNell, principal of Elm Street Academy in Cuba and supervisor of the Ellicottville Central School Big Picture Learning program, said that students having a hard time with school aren’t given many options.

“I mean, if you’re in a traditional school and you’re struggling, what are you going to do? You’re going to seek out something different,” he said.

That something different, of course, could be the Big Picture Learning program. Co-founded in 1995 by educators Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, Big Picture Learning enables students to pursue their passions and interests not only within the classroom but in hands-on, “real world” settings, as well.

“So, if (a student) wants to be a welder, then almost half of their week is spent in some kind of welding program, either our BOCES learning program where they can get a certification or a community-based welding experience, and what that does is it lets them see hands-on and real-world adult interaction, work skills necessary and academic skills necessary to be successful,” said McNell. “So, it’s not just a teacher standing in front of a room saying well this math is important because this, this and this. They’re actually going into the real world and seeing why math is important and why science is important.”

Currently, the Big Picture Learning program is being implemented in Elm Street Academy in Cuba and in the Ellicottville Central School district, the latter of which leases classrooms to service five different school districts in the program: Cattaraugus-Little Valley, West Valley, Pioneer, Franklinville and Ellicottville.

Bob Miller, Ellicottville Central School principal, said this is the third year that ECS has “housed” the Big Picture Learning program and that ECS will have three graduates who took the program this year and five graduates since the program was implemented there.

“It’s been a very good program for the students at Ellicottville,” he said.

Miller said that the program is intended for students who desire a high school diploma, but, “for whatever reason,” struggle with the “traditional day.”

“There’s a lot of structure and regiment to that traditional schedule, whereas in Big Picture, for our kids, it’s much more flexible. They don’t have the 42-minute bells. You’re going to do math, science, English and social studies before lunch and then after lunch, you’re going to take these three courses. I think that’s been the big difference for our kids: being able to work in a flexible environment within a hands-on curriculum to give them the skills they need to pass those state tests and earn their credits,” he said.

In the past three years, the Ellicottville program has graduated about 25 students, 20 of which have been accepted to college or some form of higher education.

“We can’t make them go (to college or a higher education program), but it’s pretty powerful to see them go from dropping out of high school to being exposed to college,” said McNell, who expects about 80 students to be enrolled in the Cuba and Ellicottville programs next year.

In taking an individualized approach to learning, each Big Picture Learning student has a digital portfolio that includes either assignments or project-based work that addresses not only a student’s passions and interests, but also New York state’s learning standards. In addition, students have independent work time in which they are not in a formal structural setting and those who are unsure of what they are interested in are exposed to many career explorations.

McNell said that the up-front tuition cost for the Big Picture Learning program is $18,000 a year, which is paid by the district, with each participating school receiving a varying portion of that money back in state aid the following year. He said a couple of conditions are required for the program to continue.

“As long as there’s a need and as long as the program continues to be successful,” he said. “Right now, in my eyes, it’s a very successful program. We’ll continue to take kids as long as it’s successful and works well for them.”

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