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Schenectady students step into a new setting at Big Picture Learning

The inaugural class of a new education program in Schenectady filled the halls of the Washington Irving Education Center Thursday.

There's a lot to talk about come the first day of school. At Big Picture Schenectady, students are talking about a new approach to education that involves individualized learning plans for students to use their strengths and passions.

Schenectady City School District Superintendent Anibal Soler says choice empowers students.

“Kids chose to be here,” Soler said. “So, no one was like you met a criteria and said ‘yeah,’ and that's what we've sometimes done in education where we've like said, ‘Hey, you didn't do well, you're just you're getting you gotta go,’ this was our choice. So, our parents chose this, based on a vision, like we presented a vision to them, we talked about what we wanted to do, and they all selected.”

After starting as an art teacher in western New York, Soler says he understands the importance of non-traditional learning.

“Not all kids, you know, function well in a large environment. So, some of our kids will do, will flourish here. And the hope is, this is the inaugural year and every year we get better at it. And there'll be a story to be told here that will excite kids that want to come be a part of Big Picture Schenectady.”

Soler says while the program is currently housed on the third floor, it has space to grow.

“We're doing some construction across multiple buildings. Right now, it's their home and so they probably could fit here for another year or two. But eventually we'll have to have a bigger conversation as a district to figure out if, like, ‘Is this the right permanent home?’ And then, you know, I think the biggest thing for us we also don't want to negatively impact adult education. So, we have to keep those conversations going.”

72 students make up this year’s class. They will work with teachers and peers to gain career skills and participate in hands-on learning opportunities while working toward a Regents diploma.

Students at Big Picture are held to the same curriculum standards as those in traditional high schools across the state. Julie Neugebauer teaches math. She says she’s up to the challenge of getting the students ready for the Regents.

“It is still math, we still have standards to meet to teach, and the rigor is still going to be, you know, ninth-grade algebra level,” Neugebauer said. “And we're, I'm hopefully going to be able to find a way to make it so it's real world. You know and we've been doing that for years all like we have such amazing math teachers in the district that do make those connections. And I'm just hoping that like, we can actually take them out of the building so they can see those connections.”

Ninth-grader student Jada Robinson is part of the inaugural class. Each morning, a class of 18 students will meet with their advisors, who are also their teachers. They’ll remain linked for the duration of high school to work on interest-based projects and build a community. Robinson says she is ready for the new school year.

“I'm just looking forward to whatever this has to offer, like, I'm new; I'm kind of nervous,” Robinson said. “It's all new to me so I'm looking forward to pretty much everything and what's going on to this program.”

Robinson says the program brings an appeal that traditional programs do not.

“I heard there's like volunteering going on,” Robinson said. “Like some days like you get to go out and volunteer or something like that. I wanted to see like what was that all about? Because I kind of wanted to try career still. I really want to be a voice actor in the future too. So, like I wouldn't be able to do that have that part time. It's my dream.”

Fellow ninth-grader Jassiah Ross says he has several priorities this school year.

“Truthfully, truthfully I'm not gonna lie, I'm just waiting for the football games,” Ross said. “I love the football games. That’s really it.”

Big Picture principal Sarah Horaczek says her career has focused on alternative learning. She says she is looking forward to students’ realization of their impact on the school’s environment.

“It’s really a time for students to make it what they want to be so I'm really excited to see that come to fruition,” Horaczek said. “Every advisory looks different and feels different and it's based on what the students and the adults want and need they collaborate.”

School nurse Melissa Keen says Big Picture feels like home.

“First of all, to come into a building that's alternative ed., that's how I grew up,” Keen said. “I graduated from alternative education school. So, coming back and being able to give back to the students that I used to be is very enlightening. And I'm hoping that I can give them a little bit more encouragement. Because I was where they were. And so, there is a possibility for every student, all students can learn. They just learn differently.”

Samantha joined the WAMC staff after interning during her final semester at the University at Albany. A Troy native, she looks forward to covering what matters most to those in her community. Aside from working, Samantha enjoys spending time with her friends, family, and cat. She can be reached by phone at (518)-465-5233 Ext. 211 or by email at ssimmons@wamc.org.