Bellevue Big Picture School graduated its inaugural class on June 20. The class of 31 students began as sixth graders at the school in 2011 and have now left as high school seniors.
Big Picture is considered a choice school. In addition to standard curriculum, the school implements project-based curriculum. The school focuses on the “big picture” of students’ education and emphasizes on students’ transferable skills.
All middle school students have an advisory class that focuses on community building, college and career exploration, leadership, goal setting, and academic and study skills.
Ninth grade students begin high school with a 10-week internship preparation course. By the end of the first semester, students work at internships every Thursday, earning academic credit for their work. By graduation, a student may have completed multiple internships.
Kaarina Aufrance, an English teacher for the high school, advises 20 students through their internships. As a teacher and adviser, she described teaching at the school as using a different muscle.
“You feel like you’re responsible for their academics but you’re also responsible for this other giant piece of their life and you become really close to the kids. The seniors that are graduating this year — it’s like I’m letting my own kids go to college,” she said. “I think that’s what makes it really special is that connection but then it also makes it a lot more emotionally taxing.”
Lance Haag, a U.S. history and human cultures teacher, said the students possess more maturity than the average teenager.
“It’s like they have a better understanding of who they are at a younger age instead of post-college,” he said.
Many students said they wouldn’t have received the same education, opportunities or support if they attended a different school.
Anjini Taneja Azhar, a graduating senior, said her experience at the school has equipped her well for pursuing her goals of being a film writer and director.
“It’s been really good because it’s given me a sense of family and I think having that tight-knit community has allowed me to become more flexible and push myself to succeed and also get comfortable with failing,” she said. “I’m walking out of Big Picture having a really good sense of who I want to be and what I want to do.”
Most students said attending Big Picture was one of the best decisions their parents could have ever made for them. Isabella Burckhardt, Jackson Robinson and Sam Konzen — also graduating seniors — said the school has left them feeling more confident in themselves and more sure of who they want to be.
“The personal growth I’ve seen in myself has been incredible and none of that would’ve happened if I had gone somewhere else. The biggest takeaway for me has been seeing myself grow into a far better person than I would have (been) otherwise,” Robinson said.
Big Picture has allowed students to interact and form relationships with each other and teachers that they wouldn’t be able to in another school. Konzen said the teachers genuinely care about their students and check in on them if they notice students aren’t acting like themselves.
A previous motto for the school was “learning is not a spectator sport.” Konzen explained at Big Picture, no one can sit back and not participate.
“You have to get involved. Whereas other schools can let you ride the wave and just follow everyone else. But here, even if you don’t know who you are, you’re gonna find out whether you like it or not,” Konzen said.
However, students said while Big Picture is a great school, it does present its challenges.
“Because our class sizes are so small, everybody can know each other’s business and it can be hard to step away from that,” Azhar said. “But then it requires you to be mature and figure how to get along with others.”
For Konzen, he said it was sometimes difficult to be in a school with people having a good idea of what they wanted to do when he didn’t know what he wanted to do.
He spent freshman year and most of sophomore year pursuing the idea of going into mechanical engineering.
“When I went out and actually did an internship on it, I learned that’s not what I want to do — not even one little bit,” he said. “Then it chucked me into the void of ‘what do I want to do?’ And it’s junior year and my plan has been pushed away.”
Konzen said it can be difficult to be at this school and have multiple passions and not know exactly what to pursue because everyone is so driven.
“But it’s actually really great that I figured out what I don’t want to do before I went to school for mechanical engineering and spent four years with expensive tuition figuring out something that I figured out for free here,” he said. “The purpose of Big Picture isn’t to have everything figured out, it’s to have the skills to figure it out when the time is right.”
The students most want the outside community to know that Big Picture isn’t an alternative school. It has the same normal school events like homecoming, sports and prom.
“It’s just a school, but it’s a school for leaders who want to get started and get moving and do things. It’s for people who feel antsy sitting in their seats because the want to go out and make a change and be productive,” Azhar said.
Konzen believes the Big Picture model will be the future of learning for all schools.
“I don’t believe the way we’ve been learning can keep up with the world that we now live in,” Konzen said. “(The Big Picture style) is the future of learning.”
Through their experiences at Big Picture, students feel excited and well prepared to enter college.
Robinson will be attending the University of Oregon and pursuing a degree in physics. Konzen will be attending Hampshire College in Massachusetts and may pursue photography and psychology. Burckhardt will be attending Hofstra University in Long Island, New York and pursuing entrepreneurship in the business program. Azhar will be attending Santa Monica College for film and television production and will transfer to New York University’s school of arts for directing and writing.