November/December 2021 Issue
October 25, 2021

Thinking outside the box on alternative education

Author: Matt Smith
Source: NYSUT United
big picture learning
Caption: NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango, left, and Cheryl Hughes, Kenmore Teachers Association, discuss the Big Picture Program, an alternative education high school in the Ken-Ton School District near Buffalo. Photo by Dan Cappellazzo.

It’s 7:25 a.m. and students are making their way upstairs to the top of the former Kenmore Middle School, where teachers are lined along both sides of the corridor, waiting to dole out morning greetings, pats on the back and high fives.

“There she is!”

“You ready? It’s going to be a great day!”

“Good morning, Gino!”

“We’re like a family here,” teacher Cheryl Hughes said of the students, educators and administrators who gather each day on the building’s third floor — home of the Ken-Ton School District’s Big Picture Program, an alternative education high school.

“The students here stick together.

They get along, and even bicker, like brothers and sisters. And they know too that here is where they have another caring adult in their lives,” said Hughes, a NYSUT Board member and Kenmore Teachers Association secretary who also serves as a science teacher and advisor in the Big Picture Program.

Based on a nationally designed, research-based education model, Big Picture was brought to Ken-Ton in 2012 out of concern over graduation rates, said Matt Chimera, a retired social studies teacher who spent 38 years in the classroom and helped launch the program in the district.

At the time, Chimera was one of only three full-time teachers in Big Picture serving 30 students in ninth and tenth grades. Now the Ken-Ton program has seven full-time teachers and a principal serving 90 students grades 8 to 12. The program’s graduation rate stands at 94 percent, higher than the overall district’s.

The program’s success, Chimera said, is that its project-based approach appeals to non-traditional students who would otherwise have difficulty in a typical classroom environment.

Chimera recalled, for example, one project undertaken by a student that focused on skateboarding.

The construction of a skate ramp involved math and technology; the physics of the sport provided lessons in science; while the biographical essays the student wrote on his favorite skaters helped develop knowledge in English and skills in writing.

“It’s not like you are just sitting around here. You are always engaged. It’s very hands-on,” said eighth-grade student Avahn Jackson.

Also appealing is the 15-to-1 student-teacher ratio.

“The smaller class sizes really help me with my anxiety, which is something I have always struggled with,” said fellow eighth-grader Ariana Correa as she sat in a circle with her classmates, tossing a bright stuffed squid to one another that designated whose turn it was to speak.

NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango said Ken-Ton’s Big Picture Program serves as a model for all schools on how to provide a strong academic curriculum while ensuring students’ social and emotional needs are being met.

“The program allows for the time that you need as a teacher to develop those really meaningful relationships. What we hear from students over and over here is how they feel valued and cared for by the teachers,” said DiBrango. “It’s not because teachers here care more. It’s because there is explicit time to be able to express and show their care. Then that allows the students to model it with one another. It’s developing a culture — a family environment.”

Prior to the start of each school day on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Big Picture students and teachers in Ken-Ton gather for a “Pick Me Up,” which serves as a pep rally of sorts to start the day off on a positive note.

“There’s a great family atmosphere here,” said Ken-Ton Superintendent Sabatino Cimato, smiling. “Where else are you going to find a bunch of kids this excited to be in school at eight in the morning in October?” On Tuesdays and Thursdays, students report to internships in the community: at veterinarian offices, local gyms, auto repair businesses, law firms, locksmiths — you name it.

Key to Big Picture, Chimera said, is the advisory component in which teachers — who must apply to work in the program — stay with the same group of kids for all five years. In doing so, they get to know not only their students, but also the parents, with whom they build open lines of communication.

“It takes a special kind of person to teach in this program,” said Chimera, a member of NYSUT Retiree Council 1, who now serves as president of the district’s board of education. “You really become part of your student’s family and so you need to have someone who wants to build those relationships.”

Big Picture is “unlike any educational experience I have ever been part of,” said Richard Kennedy, a Kenmore TA member and math teacher in the program who formerly worked as a calculus professor at Canisius College. “This helped me rethink what education truly means.

And (the students) really did a lot to help me rethink my future.”

DiBrango, who was in Ken-Ton touring the Big Picture Program recently, was asked by senior Alexandria Bolt, “How did you get your start and how did you rise to the level you are now?” The NYSUT officer talked about how she spent 21 years as a classroom teacher, became involved in her union, took on various roles and eventually ran for elected office.

“It’s scary to change what you are doing,” DiBrango said. “But keep trying. Keep evolving. Just because you are in one place one day doesn’t mean you have to be there the next.”

“Eventually,” said Bolt, an aspiring teacher herself, “I want to be just as high up as you.”

Big Picture NY

Big Picture Learning was established in 1995 with the sole mission of putting students directly at the center of their own learning. Students spend considerable time in the community in real-world work situations. With less emphasis on standardized tests, students are assessed on exhibitions and demonstrations of achievement.

Across New York state — in rural, big city, urban and suburban districts — schools are incorporating project-based learning into their curriculum. And several districts are taking advantage of resources offered through Big Picture Learning, whether it’s the full Big Picture experience or internships and other real-world opportunities. For more information about Big Picture Learning, visit