Local Catholic schools first in country to implement expeditionary model
By Julie Filby
EXPEDITIONARY LEARNING MODEL
Where: Presentation of Our Lady School, Denver
Where: St. Rose of Lima School, Denver
Photo by James Baca/DCR
Two schools in the Denver Archdiocese were the first Catholic schools in the country to partner with Expeditionary Learning, a network of educational institutions modeling curriculum on experiential learning.
St. Rose of Lima and Presentation of Our Lady schools, both in Denver, adopted the model at the beginning of the school year.
“Expeditionary Learning has an excellent history of student performance, an exceptional level of student engagement, and an outstanding network of resources and support for staff,” said Tracy Alarcon, principal at St. Rose.
The EL concept was born in the early 1990s out of the Harvard Outward Bound Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education when Outward Bound led an initiative to identify, develop and replicate effective models of school-based urban programming. By 2010, the network had grown to 165 schools in 30 states.
Through learning expeditions, case studies, projects, fieldwork and service learning; students dig deeper into topics, then present their findings to an authentic audience.
“The EL model appealed to us because it really engages students and encourages learning that’s active, and can be applied to real-world situations,” explained Sandra Howard, principal at Presentation. “The model also encourages collaborative learning and … a lot of ‘hands-on’ learning through projects and expeditions.”
Middle-school students from St. Rose had an opportunity to showcase their projects at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science Feb. 27. There they explained panel displays, which they had researched and produced in class related to the atom, to museum patrons.
Eighth-graders Naomi Rodriguez and Alexis Miramontes, who partnered on “Rutherford and His Model of the Atom,” recognize value in the EL model.
“We got to do it how he (physicist-chemist Ernest Rutherford) did it … through research,” said Rodriguez. “It’s more hands on.”
“It’s more exciting,” added Miramontes.
Middle school science and social studies teacher, Faustin Weber, a member of the leadership team that implemented EL at St. Rose, supervised the projects.
“This kind of opportunity is awesome because (the students) are able to show off their knowledge,” he said. “It helps me too because I’m able to assess their knowledge.”
Teachers receive ongoing professional training through EL.
“We’ve received top-notch professional development this year as a faculty, at least once a month,” he said. “This allows us to ‘attack’ goals put forth by our administration … and (to) get on the same page with language and teaching methodology.”
When considering the decision, administrators remained cognizant of the school’s Catholic identity.
“EL had never partnered with a Catholic school before,” said Alarcon. “We made sure if we entered into this partnership, that we were still first and foremost, Catholic. Through several meetings it was clear this was not an issue.”
While it’s estimated to take three years to “get going,” the schools are happy with initial findings.
“I’ve seen tremendous growth among our staff: the quality of planning and assessment has improved, students are more engaged despite the fact that more has been asked of them,” Alarcon said. “We really raised the bar for staff and students, and I couldn’t be happier with the results.”
Howard has seen improvement in test scores at Presentation.
“We’ve specifically focused on math this year,” she said. “As a result we have shown some very nice improvement in our overall ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) math scores.”
According to statistics from EL’s national office, schools implementing the model outperformed district averages in reading, English, language arts and math. The 2012 EL National Conference will be held in Denver May 3-5. For more information, visit www.elschools.org.