The City of Brotherly Love is keeping true to its name through a remarkable partnership “with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the School District of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and Big Picture Philadelphia (BPP).”
In 2015, after the School District of Philadelphia proposed the addition of one new learning environment within their Innovation Network, BPP jumped at the opportunity. Staying true to their Big Picture name, they built their proposal around a flexible learning schedule that would ensure their young learners could experience a breadth of open-walled learning through dynamic community internships. Confident in their request, thanks to the track record of El Centro de Estudiantes (BPP’s first learning environment) and their commitment to being a neighborhood learning environment, BPP won approval to open Vaux Big Picture High School in the fall of 2017.
To be a neighborhood learning environment, every young learner who attends must live in the catchment area drawn up by the school board. The only difference between Vaux and the surrounding traditional high schools is young learners have to opt in to attend. To give them the information to make this choice, learners are first introduced to the personalized, relevant, and contextualized program in their traditional middle school environments. Starting it all off with an experience of their own agency, they can consider if this project-based learning environment is the best match their unique learning needs.
Of course, no presentation or brochure can completely prepare young learners for the breadth of change they experience when they come to Vaux. No generation in the North Philadelphia neighborhood before them has experienced an environment that so strongly focuses on learner agency and community service as a focal point for learning. Parents and grandparents who may have attended Vaux before it was a Big Picture program, see the building as a dangerous place. But, once they see their children and grandchildren blossoming through the socially embedded environment that is now Vaux Big Picture—serving the community, taking the lead during family conferences with educators, and presenting during open-community exhibitions—they open up and become advocates themselves.
A perfect example comes from a learner who, as a typical class clown, brought a disengaged attitude to his learning experience—something that had been developing over the course of a decade in traditional environments. He wouldn’t engage with requests from educators and would, instead, opt for silently tossing a marker at a peer to get a laugh. After a meeting that brought together his advisor, principal, mother, and himself, the group was able to bridge the expectations gap. The very next week, after only four hours of focused work, the young learner had identified his interests, cold called businesses and organizations throughout the community, landed an interview for a possible internship, and compiled an entire portfolio of past work that showed his learning growth. Proud of his effort, he was heard yelling down the hall at his principal to show off his efforts and success.
Vaux and the neighborhood it resides in has decades of negative history to break free from. But, with continuous community interaction, growing advocacy from young learners and their families, and the support of many local institutions, Vaux is looking to become a premier example of how learner-centered education can thrive in communities that are facing the most inequitable circumstances.