High hopes in Camden: New school to mix academics, internships

High hopes in Camden: New school to mix academics, internships

High hopes in Camden: New school to mix academics, internships

Camden New Jersey's Main Information Source

Thursday, April 28, 2005

High hopes in Camden
School Funded by Microsoft founder Bill Gates Philanthropy

New school to mix academics, internships
Courier-Post Staff

School officials are preparing to launch a tiny high school stuffed with big aspirations.

Timothy Jenkins will serve as principal of Met East in Camden, part of a national network of Big Picture Schools. `The challenge is making the community aware of what the school is about and getting them to buy in,' he said.
In September, Camden will open Met East, part of a national network of Big Picture Schools that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is helping to start.

At the 25 Big Picture Schools operating in Chicago, Detroit and other cities, students from low-income communities are groomed for college and careers.

While some Big Picture Schools are charter schools, Met East will operate within the Camden district. It will be the first Big Picture School in New Jersey.

"We are extremely excited," Assistant Superintendent Luis Pagan said.

Big Picture Schools offer individual instruction and internships revolving around students' interests and aspirations, stressing relationships among students, teachers, parents and mentors in the community.

There are no grades; instead, students are evaluated on their progress on academic and vocational goals.

Three days each week are devoted to academics, and students spend alternate days working with mentors whose careers match their interests.

Academic activities are tailored so that a student intrigued by law would study math, science and literature through a legal perspective, Met East Principal Timothy Jenkins said.

Internships at banks, bakeries, colleges, day-care centers, law firms, automotive garages or research labs will use resources in Camden and nearby communities, Pagan said.

Met East is part of a larger plan to open a series of smaller high schools in Camden, Superintendent Annette Knox said.

"We talked about our dreams about having small schools in Camden," she said.

Camden is an ideal community for a Big Picture School, said Charles Mojkowski, a senior associate with Big Picture Co., a nonprofit using funds from the Gates Foundation to start the schools.

The theory behind the smaller schools, Mojkowski said, is that close relationships between students and their mentors translate into academic success.

"You can't teach me if I don't know you," he said.

Met East will be a valuable asset in Camden, said Carla McCargo, whose daughter attends eighth grade at Pyne Poynt Family School and hopes to attend Met East.

"This is going to be a close-knit family," McCargo said, referring to the maximum of 120 students who will attend the school when it reaches full size.

McCargo said the school would be perfect for her daughter, who learns by debating and questioning and challenging teachers.

Some days, McCargo said, her daughter complains that her teachers do not have the time to answer her questions.

"She's definitely going to get the attention she desires" at Met East, she said.

Since the first Big Picture School opened in Providence, R.I., in 1996, the schools have a record for sparking ambition in students who founder in traditional classrooms.

All Big Picture School graduates in Rhode Island, California, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Louisiana and Colorado have been accepted into college.

A total of 2,000 students are enrolled nationwide in Big Picture Schools.

In recent years, the Gates Foundation has committed $14.1 million to Big Picture Schools.

Those funds are part of a nearly $1 billion investment the Microsoft CEO has made over the last decade in promoting small high schools.

The Gates Foundation is covering the cost of Jenkins' training. But once the school opens, Met East will operate with district funds.

Teachers, known as advisers, will develop individual learning plans with students and ensure that their academic programs and internships cover the state's curriculum requirements. Advisers will oversee a maximum of 14 students, Pagan said.

Jenkins is recruiting teachers for Met East.

Before entering the admissions lottery for Met East, students and parents must complete an application and sit for an interview with Jenkins.

When the school opens in September with a ninth grade of 45 students, classes will be held at Challenge Square School.

In the spring, the school will move to the district's administrative building on North Front Street until a permanent facility is built.

The student body will reflect the demographic makeup of the city, Jenkins said, adding that Met East will cater to students with varied academic records.

Nurturing the aspirations of gifted and special-needs students alike will become a hallmark of Met East, Jenkins said.

"That's one of the great advantages of a small school," he said.

In the meantime, McCargo said she is trying to brace her daughter for the possibility that she might not get into Met East.

"She's disappointed that they're going by lottery," McCargo said. "She said, `Mom, let's get the application and fill it out! Fill it out!' "