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Big Picture Schooling in a Garage

Susan Notes:
Teach him as he goes along sounds like powerful pedagogy to me. Better than shoving textbook algebra and calculus down his throat and pretending it's important.

Note the side of the high school

Clarence Wells stands hunched over the 1954 Volvo racing car he's been working on for more than a year. He's 16 years old and wearing a knit cap over his dreadlocks and blue coveralls with the name Oscar stitched over the front pocket, a hand-me-down from the guy who used to deliver the garage's laundry.

Last year, when Wells showed up at Gallant Racing Supply in Oakland, he didn't know how to change a spark plug. But over the last year, he has rebuilt the classic Volvo piece by piece. Scraping off rust. Repainting. Installing a transmission, rear axle, brakes, master cylinder. He has cut and molded metal panels for the insides of the two doors. He has mounted the tachometer and ignition system and wired the dashboard gauges.

"We teach him as he goes along,'' says Dan Gallant, who owns and runs the garage with his wife, Karen. "We tell him to read the instruction manuals and come to us with questions.''

The Gallants have never had children. Their lives for the past 30 years have been building and maintaining race cars, the two of them working side by side, day in and day out, like a farm couple from another era. Then in September 2003, a 15-year-old kid called. He was looking for an internship. The Gallants never envisioned their cluttered, cavernous garage on East 12th Street as a classroom, but that is what it has become for Wells and a classmate from MetWest High School, an unusual public school of 102 students a few blocks away.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, every student at MetWest reports to an internship instead of school. They work in veterinarians' offices and hospitals, nonprofits and day care centers. They find internships that match their interests, then use their workplace experience as the foundation for research projects. One student studied parvovirus in dogs. Another researched the role of play in the cognitive development of preschoolers.

Wells wrote mathematical formulas to figure out gear ratios and tire sizes and to calculate proper weight distribution in cars. He had never much liked math. But he found himself honing his math skills every day through trial and error and the no-nonsense direction of Karen and Dan Gallant.

"I don't know if I want to do this for a living,'' Wells says of auto mechanics. He has also interned at a television station. "But it's gotten me interested in electrical engineering and physics.''

MetWest is one of 26 schools across the country opened during the past seven years by a nonprofit organization called Big Picture Schools, funded in large part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Big Picture Schools is the brainchild of an unconventional educator named Dennis Littky and his colleague Elliot Washor. Littky was the subject of a 1989 book, "Doc,'' and a 1992 television movie called "A Town Torn Apart,'' both about his dramatic transformation of a failing school in a New Hampshire mill town.

"High schools are not working,'' Littky said during a recent visit to MetWest, which occupies part of the first floor of the Oakland Unified School District's administrative building, across from Laney College. (The students use the Laney College library and gym and frequently take science and math classes there.) "Urban high schools are way not working. Yet people think the answer is to keep doing the same thing, only more of it.''

Littky lives in Providence, R.I., home of the first Big Picture high school. His concept is a radical one and thus requires a leap of faith for some parents. There are no formal classes, tests or grades. The students are grouped in 17-member "advisories'' that stay together for all four years with a teacher, or adviser. They learn not so much by sitting and listening, but by doing and discussing. The school days are lively, the relationships intimate. Every student has his or her own educational plan with individual goals, all based on the student's strengths and passions.

"The most common word we hear about high school is 'boring,' '' Littky said. "What you have to do is engage them, then push them like crazy to learn.''

Advisers assess effort and progress through presentations of the students' research projects, which must incorporate critical thinking about aspects of math, history, literature and science. In other words, Littky's goal is to provide an actual education, not the appearance of one.

"Look at any high school kid's transcript, and what's on the transcript and what they really know are two different things,'' he said. "That's the farce of high school. Somebody did a study in which they gave kids a test in September that they had gotten A's on in June. They all flunked. Didn't remember a thing. But on their transcripts, they had A's in that subject.''

Despite the nonprofit's refusal to teach to the standardized tests, Big Picture students score well enough to go on to college. At Littky's Providence school, more than 90 percent of the seniors are accepted to colleges. MetWest has not been around long enough to have seniors, but last year, in its second year of operation, the school registered the third highest Academic Performance Index (API) score among all Oakland public high schools.

Clarence Wells applied to MetWest at the urging of his godparents, who have been raising him since his mother died of kidney failure last year. His father died of a stroke when he was 7. His godparents steered him to MetWest to keep him out of the huge, impersonal public high schools. Wells says he misses "the dances and big-high-school stuff,'' but he says he has learned more about organization, thinking and problem-solving in the garage than in any classroom.

Littky hears this all the time.

"Schools are set up to isolate kids from adults,'' Littky said. And urban kids with working parents or absent parents are in particular need of interacting with smart, caring adults outside the home. "We have kids do internships not to find a job but to find something they love and to find adults who love it, too.''

Each student has a mentor at his or her internship, someone who is vetted by the school and has agreed to work closely with the student. The mentor is responsible for honing the important skills that students don't learn in a classroom -- taking direction, taking responsibility for specific tasks, speaking and behaving in a businesslike manner. They also become resources and role models.

"Being a mentor is very labor intensive,'' Dan Gallant says, watching Wells from across the garage. Wells and his classmate will be the Gallants' crew when the Volvo makes it maiden race next spring at Sears Point.

"We've never done anything like this before,'' Gallant says of mentoring the two boys. "But when you run into kids doing the right thing instead of getting into trouble, I think it's part of our job as a community to support that.''

E-mail Joan Ryan at joanryan@sfchronicle.com.

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— Joan Ryan



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