With students who often arrive on campus already behind and enmeshed in fragile or abusive family environments, Durango Big Picture High School strives to nurture students, many of whom are at-risk, to complete their high school educations whether that takes four years or seven years.
“Our motto is one student at a time,” said Big Picture Principal Bradley Hardin.
Hardin said Big Picture works with each student to determine if they can graduate in four, five, six or seven years. The school also examines if pursuing a General Educational Development diploma with the Durango Adult Education Center makes the most sense for them.
“The philosophy of Big Picture is to take time out of the equation,” Hardin said. “We recognize students learn at different rates. Some accept concepts quicker than others. We want them to learn the material. If that takes two days, that’s great. If it takes two months, that’s great, too.”
Dealing with each student individually is essential for Big Picture given the different circumstances each are in, Hardin said. “We have a 20-year-old student who is working 60 hours a week and taking care of his father and sister. He’s paying the bills, and they’re moving from place to place. They’re dealing with needs and they’re serious needs,” he said.
Classes at Big Picture last four weeks, then students move to another four-week class in an effort to concentrate learning into shorter cycles, which Harden said is aimed at improving attendance, behavior and helping track students’ grades.
The school also is building its internship program to give its students more experience in the workplace. Hardin cited one student with an interest in motorcycles who interned at a motorcycle dealership while writing a term paper on motorcycles. “We work to create pathways that give kids a choice,” he said.
Jessica Watson, accountability and policy manager with the Colorado Department of Education, said the state agency recognizes the unique position alternative high schools like Big Picture are in, and it holds them accountable not based on graduation rates but on their best completion rates for students not only in four years but through as many as seven years of study for their high school diploma.
Big Picture had a 75 percent completion rate for its students though seven years of study in 2018 compared with a 72.2 percent completion rate for its students through seven years of study in 2017.
Big Picture is rated at AEC performance by the state Education Department, the highest rating for an alternative school. Hardin said Big Picture also looks at its successes in helping students navigate their social and emotional lives.
“When you look at some students, they haven’t met their academic goals. But from a social and emotional perspective, they’re not punching walls anymore. They’ve developed better strategies to deal with their alcoholic mother,” he said.