Vaux Big Picture School: A Conversation with Gabe Kuriloff
Q&A 20 November 2018
By Gabe Kuriloff, Vaux Big Picture School
For 30 years we’ve been spouting, “No Child Left Behind means test, test, test;” whereas I believe No Child Left Behind means “love, love, love.”
Q: What path led you to becoming the Principal at Vaux Big Picture School?
A: In the early 1990’s, I interned with city councilwoman Happy Fernandez for six weeks during my junior year of high school. That internship changed my life. One of the things they had me do was sit in the city council hearings for the school district’s budget. It was amazingly grim. The conversation in the School District of Philadelphia at that point was all about where they needed to make cuts (e.g. art programs, athletics). As someone who had the good fortune of attending learner-centered, learning-by-doing private schools in the city, I was captivated by the state of our public education system.
In sixth grade, I wanted to have a pet show, so my teacher said “have a pet show!” Off I went with a couple friends organizing the event, creating posters, and establishing rules for the judges. I went to these schools where doing things for yourself based on your passions and interests was inherent to how learning happened.
Through that internship with the city council and other volunteer work, it became clear to me that students who did not look like me and did not have the same resources I had were not getting the same educational experience as me. That didn’t seem right. The fundamental premise was, you only got what I got by luck and privilege. That shouldn’t be the dividing line between what is a joyous and empowering educational experience and what maybe isn’t. That led me down the path I’m on now.
I went to Brown as an undergraduate, studying Urban Studies, and wrote my Honors Thesis on the politics of school reform in Philadelphia. At the same time, I earned my teaching certificate and began interning with the Annenberg Institute and the Coalition of Essential Schools which were helping to launch Big Picture Learning and start The Met.
To these young people coming from traditional schools, they might not even see it as “real work” if it doesn’t involve pain, a bad grade, or a red pen’s markings all over their work.
Even though I was an Urban Studies major, I was solely focused on studying schools. And, I felt if I wanted to get into education, I had to become a teacher first. One of the things I learned from Brown’s education department was the importance of humility. It was evident to me that if I wanted teachers’ respect and to have the ability to effectively lead them, I needed to know what I was talking about—it would not be right to think I could change systems at-large without knowing what it was like inside the classroom.
Informing my current principalship at Vaux, is five years of teaching, eight years of administrative work, and a pending Ed.D. from Penn. Throughout that time, I’ve always been pretty agnostic to the governance structure of the schools I work at; I find it much more important to connect with the school’s mission.
Q: What has attracted you to stay in Philadelphia?
A: The truth of it is, when I took that internship with the city councilwoman, I determined then and there that it was going to be my mission in life to make schools more equitable. Of course, at that time, I had no idea what I was talking about, but I have not strayed from that path in 24 years. Being able to serve the city I call home in pursuit of that mission has always felt right.
More specifically, what has kept me in Philly all this time is my family’s connection to the city. My father is a professor of education leadership at Penn, my mother is a professor of teacher education at Temple, and my wife is the head of teacher education at Drexel. In this town, I go places and start talking and people say, “Wait, are you Peter Kuriloff’s son? You sound exactly like him.” Having these kind of connections is something I treasure.
Q: Vaux Big Picture School is uniquely situated in the School District of Philadelphia. Can you share more about what that means?
A: In Philly, there are neighborhood networks and then there are these really broad networks. For example, we’re part of the Innovation Network, but we are a neighborhood high school—we have a catchment area that serves one of the highest-need communities in the nation.
As a neighborhood high school, we have neighborhood conflicts that spill in and out of school, students walking through neighborhoods they don’t feel safe in, and a huge amount of intergenerational trauma. One of the unique things about Vaux is that it’s part of an entire community redevelopment project. The Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) started all of this by committing to rebuilding single family homes and reaching out to the school district, asking that they address the need for schools in the neighborhood.
In 2015, PHA put $18 million into the rehab of the old Vaux high school, which closed in 2013. In return, the district agreed to help outsource a provider (i.e. Big Picture Philadelphia), so the school could operate outside the school district requirements while maintaining the per student funding afforded to any traditional neighborhood school.
We have a lot of latitude and independence in how we implement our model of learning. One of the biggest things is the freedom to create our own schedule. As a Big Picture school, the daily schedule is full of internships and would not work if we were required to have a traditional schedule.
Q: As a new Big Picture learning environment, how do you cultivate internship partnerships from scratch?
A: Right now, we have partnerships with folks like Temple University, Philabundance (provides food services for those in need), The Children’s Hospital at Penn, and smaller restaurants and organizations around town.
Funny story. Some of our students were actually handing out flyers to community business owners looking for mentors in front of a restaurant—SPOT Gourmet Burger—around the corner. Seeing this, the restaurant’s owner, Mr. Kim, launched them into a hot dog cart business. So, they were out selling hot dogs on his behalf, and all of the profits went directly to the class.
As you can tell, there are a lot of formal partnerships that we work on, and there are a lot of informal ones. All that being said, the truth is, most internships are driven right from the student, based on their passions. If you love animals and we want to get you into a doggy daycare or veterinary clinic, you start making calls. Or, let’s say a council person visits the school and we say, “Hey, this student is looking for a connection.” The council person will then make a phone call to someone they know and get the student connected.
Q: Reflecting back on the culture of the neighborhood Vaux is in, and the intergenerational trauma that exists, what challenges have you seen in developing the kind of learning culture you’d like to see at Vaux?
A: I think it’s a really interesting challenge. And, I think this actually illuminates the importance of what Education Reimagined is doing in some ways. Everyone is acculturated to traditional schooling. It’s grim.
In many cases, our students are coming from middle schools that were really challenging education experiences—overwhelmingly traditional. As a neighborhood high school that students select to attend, we recruit and try to be very clear about our model and what students should expect. But, someone who has only experienced traditional education can’t fully grasp what they’ll experience until they get here.
Our role when students first arrive is to help them buy into this different way of learning and making sure they understand what they are doing is real learning. When you accomplish this amazing project, you don’t need to be taking quizzes and tests to prove you’ve done something that matters. Yet, to these young people coming from traditional schools, they might not even see it as “real work” if it doesn’t involve pain, a bad grade, or a red pen’s markings all over their work. A big part of our work is to get students to engage with this new way of learning and take ownership of it.
Q: What does the self-assessment and reflection phase of a completed project look like for learners?
A: It’s different depending on the teacher and subject-matter. We have teachers who are on individual growth curves just like the students are. Some teachers are really experienced with this work and get it, while others have a lot of learning to do around running advisories and developing internships. We ask a lot of our teachers—you have to believe in what we’re doing and be committed to it.
On the flip-side, our learners come in with a lot of challenges and trauma—living in environments that are extreme. Talking about cognitive science and the concept of flipped lids, our learners all have flipped lids, and we often have staff with flipped lids because there is so much learning going on all the time. It’s a challenge.
I raise that in response to your question because I think that we’re growing. On an ideal project day, you’re setting a goal—publicly, preferably—the teacher is checking in over the course of the time period (e.g. coaching, asking questions, encouraging the use of resources), and at the end, everyone is checking back in on their goals and seeing how they did. And, the students possibly set another goal for the evening. That’s a different craft than being a traditional teacher.
For students, there are some learning experiences that translate really well, and they get it. For our exhibitions, they are rigorous in terms of preparation and presentation, so there is a stronger feeling of accomplishment at the end of them. Classroom projects, on the other hand, are a bit trickier. There’s not as clear a demarcation or certification that you have mastered something and can move on.
One of the other ways these bridges are built is through the examples set by students who are out ahead of things. When they go out and start internships, they are building bridges for their peers who aren’t as ready to make that leap.
One of the things our teachers are experimenting with this year is running dual tracks. They are giving students options to have some more traditional classroom structure, while others can go off and do nothing but the project-based learning. It’s actually selling, which is really cool because the idea originated based on teachers listening to the students and responding to their needs. There’s also the side-benefit, when looking post-high school, for learners to know how to sit through a lecture.
The bridge in getting learners comfortable transitioning out of the traditional structure is finding more exemplars. We just took our students to Camden Big Picture to see how this learning looks in other environments that are doing similar things. One of the other ways these bridges are built is through the examples set by students who are out ahead of things. When they go out and start internships, they are building bridges for their peers who aren’t as ready to make that leap.
It’s equally important for us not to only focus on the high-flyers. Every school has students who are knuckleheads—they don’t give their fullest attention to the teachers, but they aren’t causing major problems. As a staff, we’ll identify six or so learners who we want to target and get them pushed out the door and into internships because we know they can do it. We want to build a bridge to the possible. We believe showing this “more challenging” cohort of learners they can do it will only help demonstrate to everyone else in the building what’s possible.
Q: What do you wish you were asked to talk about more often?
A: I have done a lot of talking about the school over the past year. I talk a lot about feeling honored to be doing this work. Nobody ever asks me what I hope for in terms of the broader mission of the school.
I hope we are the beachhead in showing you can run a progressive, neighborhood high school—that learning-by-doing can be for everyone. I’d like to walk away from this work in ten years knowing we were the first of a breed of schools that helps people understand the value of this kind of learning. For 30 years we’ve been spouting, “No Child Left Behind means test, test, test;” whereas I believe No Child Left Behind means “love, love, love.”
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