EdTech & Design, Pathways, Promising Practices, School Community

Success, but Slowly, as Met School Redefines Learning

Three years ago, one of the featured stories in the Education Canada Theme Issue (“Innovation: Challenging the Status Quo”) described an alternative school that had just opened in the Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Met School, for grades 9-12, was designed for “kids who want a rich relationship with a teacher that extends over time, real-world learning opportunities” and a program built around students’ needs and passions, Seven Oaks superintendent Brian O’Leary told Education Canada at that time.

Seven Oaks Met School was then, and still is, the only high school in Canada that is part of the Big Picture Learning network of innovative schools that started with a single Met School in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1995. Big Picture schools embody the values described by Mr. O’Leary.

This fall, Seven Oaks Met School entered its fourth year. It graduated its first class of Grade 12 students in June. This seemed a good time to ask: How well has the school fulfilled the vision described by Mr. O’Leary?

It has been a godsend for Darlene Woiden, a mother who had despaired of finding a school that would engage the interest of her son, Parker Hubley. “I love him to bits, but he’s not academically inclined,” she says. “He never was from K to 8.” She described how most days of those nine years started with a struggle to get him to go to school.


Caption: Grade 11 student, Eric, at his internship with Minute Muffler.  Eric learned how to repair tires, do oil changes and kept the shop clean and orderly, including tallying and ordering stock.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Seven Oaks School Division

For high school, she considered enrolling Parker in a private school with smaller classes. Then she received a newsletter from Seven Oaks School Division describing its new “Met School” as an alternative approach for some students. She was attracted by the school’s emphasis on a hands-on style of learning that included internships at businesses and institutions in the community. At the time, mistakenly, she wondered if the Met school was a special education class by another name and worried “he’s not going to learn what he needs.” In fact, Met School is designed for students seeking an alternative learning environment in which to pursue their passions and develop a closer relationship with teachers and students. In the end, deciding they had nothing to lose, Parker and his parents took part in an interview – a requirement for coming to the Met school. In 2009, Parker was accepted as a Grade 9 student. 

A distinguishing feature of the Met School experience is that a cohort of students stays with the same teacher (known as “advisor”) over four years of high school. The approach is an extension of a practice by all three Seven Oaks high schools to connect every graduating Grade 8 student with a teacher-advisor who introduces stu- dents to high school, helps them navigate the next four years and is the caring adult who presents them with their diploma at graduation.

Another characteristic of the Met School is small “advisory” classes with no more than 15 students, so they get to know each other and interact in a way generally not accommodated in a larger school. By sticking with the same group of students throughout high school, the teacher/advisor gets to know the student on an individual level and stays in regular communication with the parents. That familiarity, says David Zynoberg, one of four Met School teachers, helps put a student’s actions and behaviour in context and guides the advisor on what’s needed in any given situation. “We’ve had parents really highlight how much a student has grown because of having that relationship in life, that adult who cares about them and really pushes them and looks for the best in what they’re capable of,” he says.

In the early months of Parker’s first year at Met School, Ms. Woiden was concerned that the work he was bringing home seemed “vague.” But over time she watched as he became immersed in his studies, especially impressed when her son discovered that his auto mechanics internship required knowledge of the same equations he struggled with in Math. “He took off with that math and he got an 80 out of it,” she recalls.

Internships with businesses and institutions in the community are a core element of the Met School experience, with students spending two-and-a-half to three months in a workplace setting. During a school year, a student may have as many as three internships linked, or not, to career exploration. By working in a professional environment, students develop work and social skills and, as Met School Principal Adair Warren explains, “a broader understanding of the work that people have done to develop their own careers.” Placements have included a college pharmaceutical manufacturing lab, health and medical settings, media, documentary filmmaking, technology, art, animal sciences, robotics, and prosthetics and orthotics, and those are just a few.

In an experience rare for high school, Met students report quarterly on their internships, individual school projects and their academic progress in stand-up “exhibitions” for fellow classmates, parents, staff, internship mentors and anyone else they choose to invite. Typically, a student’s first presentation is a bit awkward, not well focused, and brief, says Mr. Zynoberg. But students improve with each succeeding exhibition, thanks to follow-up activities that include a feedback form for the audience and meetings between the student and staff and family after the presentation.

During the year, advisory-group workshops focus on presentation skills and techniques to help students get ready for their presentations. They need to strike a balance between style and substance, says Mr. Zynoberg. “They want to be proud of their work and look really smart [while presenting] some really complicated things, but at the same time make it accessible to everybody,” he says. “It’s a challenge that they face every presentation.”

Darlene Woiden recalls Parker’s first presentation in 2009: “He would stare at the floor, he was kicking at an imaginary spot, he was mumbling; you could barely understand him.” Then, with obvious pride and a bit of emotion, she described his most recent exhibition, delivered this past June: “He’s animated, he’s looking straight at all the students, he’s telling jokes, he’s getting them involved and he’s passing out samples of the work that the kids did at the Y for him as a present for going away.” (The family moved to Ottawa this past summer.)

Core subjects such as English and Social Studies are very much a part of the Met School program, but typically are integrated in the students’ individual projects and internships. Matt Gereta, a student of Mr. Zynoberg, studied the history of computer processors, used applied math to build a pie chart accompanying his comparative analysis of several video games and wrote an essay comparing two Internet protocols. Mr. Gereta says he “didn’t like reading at all” when he entered high school, but read 13 books in his first year in Met School. Some, but not all, were related to his avid interest in computers. He is one of the five Met School graduates this year and now attends Red River College in Winnipeg where he is studying Business Information Technology.


Since Met School does not offer Math, Calculus, Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Band, students take those classes at Garden City Collegiate, housed in the same building as the alternative program.

Diversity describes the profile of students who elect to attend Met School, says Ms. Warren, the principal. “Whether it’s honour-roll-type kids or kids who really like to work with their hands more than the academics, we are an inclusive place for all of them,” she says. In its early phase, with little time for Met School to establish its identity, some students found it not was not a good fit for them and left. Others, also unsure, stuck it out and ultimately found the program to their liking. Some students were enthusiastic from the start about the program’s promise of a better way to learn and flourished.


Caption: Met School Grade 11 film student, Anna, working on her documentary film on refugees called “Fight for Freedom.”  Anna’s film was accepted into a California film festival.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Seven Oaks School Division

Far from the laid-back image often associated with alternative schools, Met School puts its energy into helping students develop self-knowledge, essential skills and a sense of direction – a strategy common to schools in the Big Picture education reform movement.

As a result, says Mr. O’Leary, students seeking a crack to hide in at school soon discover they won’t be overlooked by the teachers. Students are challenged to find and declare their interests and passions and then, with the help of their advisor, begin to build the pieces that will make up their learning plan. This includes courses, research, projects and internships, and is done in full view of – often with the help and cooperation of – their peers in the advisory.

When Seven Oaks established the Met School, Mr. O’Leary put two personal expectations at the top of his list. One was that it provide, as he puts it, “an alternative for kids looking for a more authentic personal experience in high school that doesn’t follow the standard and unfortunate recipe of grouping all at-risk kids together and just dumbing it down” and second, that the school would “help kids get to know themselves.” 

Based on feedback from students and parents, he’s gratified that Met School is meeting those expectations. “I think lots of kids go through school on auto-pilot,” he says. “Unless we can really tap into their motivation, we won’t succeed with them. They have to be doing it for their own reasons, and ultimately just for the joy of the experience and learning.” 

I think lots of kids go through school on auto-pilot. Unless we can really tap into their motivation, we won’t succeed with them. They have to be doing it for their own reasons, and ultimately just for the joy of the experience and learning.

Still, he is disappointed that Met School was not able to reach and retain everyone. Some students, he said, saw Met School “as a relief from what they’ve found to be kind of a boring routine. But people [here] know them and they’re in their face more and they really have to get engaged to deal with stuff.” When confronted with the need to face up to their challenges, some students are not ready to do so.

Met School’s enrolment of 50 students is less than half the 120 that was projected before the school opened – a disappointment but not a game-changer for Mr. O’Leary. “One of my rules in starting things is that we delude ourselves as to how much work it’s going to be: We underestimate how much work it’s going to be and over-estimate the results. If we didn’t have that capacity for self-deception, we’d never start anything.” 

Looking ahead, Mr. O’Leary is encouraged that recruitment this year for Met School “is much easier than it’s been. Kids are coming forward. We have staff who come to the division and want to work there. We have huge competition to work there, and really talented people. We almost always get to the point that [new programs such as Met School are] better than we expected , but years one, two, and three are always more work than we had thought.”

Some elements of the Met School program elements can now be found in the three Seven Oaks mainstream high schools. All three schools have teacher-advisors and are adding to their roster of internships. In one case, West Kildonan Collegiate has changed its timetable, occasionally allowing a “whole-period day” that gives students the day to carry out a variety of integrated activities related to a particular course.

West Kildonan also has divided its 800 students into four learning clusters, each with its own science lab, with the same teacher for core courses in Grade 9 and Grade 10. “What that’s done is really cut down on failure rates,” says Mr. O’Leary. “Instead of teachers feeling pressured that they have limited time, they know they have two years, 240 hours with these kids over time. If the kid does not get the credit, the teacher who taught them is responsible for remediating them.”

Mr. O’Leary noted “a strong correlation between kids failing a single credit in Grade 9 and not graduating.” He adds “keeping students with teachers for a second year, keeping teachers responsible for kids who don’t meet their standards” is a way to reduce failures.

From his perspective as the top official in Seven Oaks School Division, Mr. O’Leary is convinced that Met School values and learning framework have had “a profound effect” on Seven Oaks high schools. Still, despite media attention and a constant flow of visitors interested in the work of Met School, he frets that “we’ve not challenged the thinking of people in other at-risk programs.” He says “people tend to see what [Met School is] doing and usually not dismiss it but say, ‘Oh, we’re doing that already’ – when they don’t.”

But those in the Met School family know exactly what the program is doing for their children. Susan Mitchell says her daughter, Candace Houle, entered Met School in Grade 9 when the school opened three years ago and has had the same teacher-advisor, Nancy Janelle, as a constant presence in her high school life. Ms. Mitchell says Candace needed a more flexible, active learning style after struggling in middle school. “Particularly in the high school years … you need to have a nurturing environment where the teachers are willing to go the extra mile. That’s what Met School has given Candace.”

For her part, Ms. Houle has sparked to the Met School experience. She’s had internships at the Winnipeg Zoo, a vegan bookstore and café, two different record labels and a local radio station. The latter two have spurred her to pursue a career in the music industry and she expects to enter Fanshawe College in London, Ontario, next fall in music, arts and industry. “I’m glad I made the decision to go [to Met School],” she says. “It’s been super-great for me.” 

Haily Seguin, now in Grade 10, last year did a project on brain development in young children and another on 9/11, as well as collaborating with a friend on a project they called “What’s in Your Burger?” Met School has made a difference for her, she says, “because it allows me to see what the real world is going to bring me once I graduate.” 

Darlene Woiden still marvels at the transformation of her son, Parker. In preparation for the family’s move to Ottawa, she and her husband took Parker to an Ottawa high school she describes as much like Met School in orientation. “He was this young adult in the room that my husband and I had never seen. He spoke of the program and he spoke of his army cadets, and he explained to them … that from his Met School he learned that learning was fun and he wanted to be in a school that could help him to keep that attitude. And the Vice-Principal just kind of looked at [me and my husband] and I just got teary-eyed and almost had to leave the room.” 

EN BREF – Seule école secondaire canadienne faisant partie du réseau américain Big Picture Learning regroupant des écoles innovantes, l’école Seven Oaks Met School a remis des diplômes à sa première cohorte ce printemps. Les stages réalisés dans des entreprises et des établissements constituent un élément fondamental de l’expérience de cette école. Les élèves préparent un rapport portant sur leur stage, ainsi que sur des projets individuels et sur leurs progrès scolaires, et présentent des exposés oraux trimestriels d’une heure devant des camarades de leur groupe consultatif, des parents, des membres du personnel, des mentors de stage et d’autres invités qu’ils choisissent. L’enseignant-conseiller de la classe suit le même groupe d’élèves pendant leurs quatre années au secondaire. 

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George Pearson

George Pearson is a freelance writer and editor. His website, UpWORDlyMobile.com, is an accessible, non-preachy source of grammar and plain-language writing tips.

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