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College Unbound Founder Dennis Littky featured by McGraw Prize

Published: March 2017

‘Radical’ Educator Pushes Boundaries and Brings Results: Dennis Littky Story

Boring. That was the consistent answer Dennis Littky received when he asked students to describe high school in one word. While that may not come as a surprise to many educators, to Littky it was a blaring call to action. With more than a million students dropping out of high school each year, he found lack of engagement was nearly always an underlying factor.

“Schools should have an obligation to engage and motivate their students,” said Littky. “You only get good work out of somebody when they’re passionate about what they’re doing.”

Known as a ‘radical educator’ for his unorthodox approach to learning, Littky has dedicated more than 40 years of his professional career pushing boundaries in education. Making headlines as a progressive principal in a fledgling high school to co-founding his own schools, including Big Picture Learning and College Unbound, Littky has become an international education thought leader.

Littky’s unconventional methods have garnered the attention of school boards, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and even President Barack Obama not just because they are unorthodox, but because they work. In 2010, President Obama joined General Colin Powell for the announcement of Grad Nation – a 10-year campaign to mobilize America to reverse the dropout crisis and help children succeed in college, work and in life. He singled out Littky’s work as motivation to the country, highlighting how innovative educational methods are leading to academic achievement.

The Big Picture of Education

Littky first made headlines when he took a role as principal of Thayer Junior/Senior High School in New Hampshire. Before he joined the school, Thayer’s dropout rate was 20 percent, and college matriculation was at 10 percent. Five years later, Littky took the school to a 1 percent dropout rate and 50 percent college matriculation rate. His success was recorded in a book, “Doc: The Story of Dennis Littky and His Fight for a Better School,” by Susan Kammeraad-Campbell and a 1992 NBC movie, A Town Torn Apart.

In 1995, Littky took this success and joined forces with fellow renowned principal, Elliot Washer, to found Big Picture Learning with the goal of radically changing traditional education. Soon after, Rhode Island Commissioner Peter McWalters gave them the opportunity to design their very own secondary school — The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (Met). Surprised and excited by the level of creative freedom they had, they asked themselves, “If we didn’t know there was such a thing as school, what would we do?”

This is where the philosophy and design of Big Picture Learning took root, shifting students, not curriculum, to the center of education. Big Picture developed student-centered curriculum catering to each student’s interests and skills.

The first Met class graduated in 2000 with a 96% graduation rate – with 98% of its graduates admitted
to post-secondary institutions, receiving more than $500,000 in scholarship support. With this groundbreaking success, the Gates Foundation announced the Met as its favorite high school in America and provided Big Picture Learning with a large grant to replicate its design nationwide. In 2005, the foundation awarded additional funding. Today, there are 65 Big Picture Learning network schools in the US, 30 schools in Australia and 36 in the Netherlands, with others in Italy, Belize, India and Canada.

“We can’t settle on mediocrity when it comes to children’s education,” said Littky. “I have hundreds of stories of our students who are engaged and passionate and going on to college prepared with the life skills and knowledge that they might not have had in another other school system.”

From Prison to a College Degree

Littky soon realized that the Met’s design and philosophy didn’t need to end with secondary education. There is a growing number of students unable to finish college, and 40% of college dropouts have parents with nothing beyond a high school diploma

In 2009, Littky founded College Unbound with grants from the Lumina Foundation, the Nellie Mae Foundation, and Big Picture Learning to address the needs of first generation, low-income college students. It is an affordable option for those who started college but never finished. College Unbound students create personal learning plans targeted to their interests and strengths, while also identifying skills gaps to chart a pathway to a degree. The flexibility of the program makes it possible for full-time students to work a full-time job.

“Our program started with only 10 students sharing living and study space in a three-story home, participating in internships and engaging in curriculum related to their work,” said Littky. “Now we have 75 students and nine out of 10 alumni are employed full-time.”

For the past year, College Unbound has worked with the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated from the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, and has achieved significant results. College Unbound works with cohorts both inside and outside of the prison. Alumni of the inside cohorts remain connected to the program by becoming mentors, recruiters, and/or teaching assistants. Students in the outside cohort receive more intensive support to help ease their transition back into society and ensure their personal and professional success. In July, 75 incarcerated men and women were recognized for their participation in CU's cohort.

“We now have 85 students in the inside cohort, working toward their degrees,” said Littky. “Once they leave the prison, they walk right into college. Our goal is to have them educated when they get out and many have gone on to give back to their communities, running a barber shop or building a community center providing a safe environment for children.”

Looking Forward

The ‘radical’ educator does not plan to slow down any time soon. He hopes to continue to redefine K-12 and higher education.

“The ‘new wealth’ is being passionate about what you do,” said Littky. “My best traits are my enthusiasm and passion, so I am lucky to have this profession where I can make education possible for all.”