GLENWOOD SPRINGS — A lot of blank walls and empty corners will greet students returning to Glenwood Springs Elementary School today, as the school begins its first year of transition to a new “expeditionary” model of learning.
The clean slate is more than a metaphor for GSES after it was adopted by the national Expeditionary Learning (EL) Schools organization earlier this year to make the conversion to an official EL school.
Those walls and spaces are a big part of what will soon become the school’s new identity. They’ve been cleared for the students, teachers, administrators, staff, the whole “crew” as they’re known in EL terminology, to share their story as they begin this new journey together, said GSES Principal Audrey Hazleton, who is also new to the school.
“The classroom walls, the hallways, the cafeteria … the whole school environment is meant to be a reflection of our students and the school community,” Hazleton said Friday as teachers and staff were making final preparations in anticipation of the new school year.
“A big part of EL is the community approach to spaces and walls, which should be used to show active learning, not just what the teachers decide to put there,” Hazleton said.
Julie Allen, a fourth-grade teacher at GSES, is looking forward to working with her students to fill those “beautiful spaces,” as she referred to them.
“The whole look and feel of the classroom will be different,” Allen said. “It’s kind of nice that it won’t be all set up when the students get here, and that they can be a part of creating the classroom.”
GSES is making the switch to the EL model after the Roaring Fork School District Re-1 board took the cue from a group of parents and teachers who recently earned approval from the Colorado Charter School Institute to start a new public charter school around EL or similar projects-based learning model.
The 150-student Two Rivers Expeditionary School is slated to open for the 2014-15 school year in Glenwood Springs. It will serve students from both the Roaring Fork Re-1 and Garfield Re-2 school districts, starting with kindergarten through sixth grade. It is expected to expand to 225 students as seventh and eighth grades are added in subsequent years.
Charter proponents applied last year with the Re-1 board to become a charter under the school district. The board, while not inclined to take on a separate charter school, did embrace the EL model as a way to improve student achievement in district schools.
GSES, a K-5 school with an enrollment of about 550 students last year, was chosen to be considered for a conversion school. After a series of community meetings last winter and spring, and a vote of support from the GSES staff, EL Schools agreed to adopt the school.
According to literature provided to parents as the new school year begins (also found at the EL Schools’ website, www.elschools.org), the hands-on, projects-based learning model combines the renowned Outward Bound program’s emphasis on challenge, teamwork, service and compassion, with the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s focus on what’s called “inquiry-based learning.”
“The high achievement of our students is the result of an unusual degree of engagement and work ethic engendered by our approach to academics coupled with relentless, purposeful instruction …,” according to the EL program description. “These factors combine to support the success of students from all backgrounds in college, career and life.”
Roaring Fork Re-1 isn’t alone in adopting the EL model. Garfield District 16’s Bea Underwood Elementary and Grand Valley Middle schools are entering the second year of their EL conversion, and the Homestake Peak School in Eagle County has been an EL school for several years.
Eventually, the curriculum at GSES will engage groups of students on projects, or “expeditions,” which are designed to promote learning through actual case studies, real-world research and problem-solving, either in the classroom, on field trips or out working in the community.
Those types of projects won’t begin in earnest until the spring semester, with more full implementation next school year, Hazleton said, acknowledging that many teachers have already been doing projects-based learning on some level before now.
It’s something fourth-grade teacher Michaela Faulhaber said she is looking forward to doing more of.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to create a strong partnership between the school and the larger community, and the opportunity for real-life learning and engagement,” Faulhaber said.
For this first semester, there will be a lot of emphasis on developing the student character habits and school climate deemed necessary to take the team approach.
“The culture and climate of the school, and how we want our students to feel in their school, is really important,” Hazleton said. “There is a direct correlation between habits and community, and student achievement.”
All part of the ‘crew’
GSES teachers and administrators recently returned from an EL training conference in Salt Lake City, where they designed a guiding work plan for the year, and began establishing what are called “crews” in the EL model.
Crews are groups of between 15 and 20 students typically, which will be determined by grade level at GSES to start and will function the same as the home room model that has already been in place at the school.
In the future as EL is more fully implemented, crews may be multi-age groups and teachers will stay with a particular crew for multiple years, Hazleton said.
The other unique thing about the crew approach is that each adult in the building, including administrators and nonteaching staff, is also assigned to be a part of a crew.
This ensures that each student has at least one adult advisor in the school that they know well, and with whom they can develop a one-on-one relationship.
Crew also emphasizes that the adults are as much a part of the learning experience as the students, and that the students are not merely “passengers,” Hazleton said.
“In a crew, everyone is learning to be together, to listen and to be successful,” she said. “Everyone has an ownership and an understanding of what is being learned.”
The transition to EL will not happen overnight, Hazleton also stressed.
Helping guide the way at GSES will be EL school designer and coach Jaime Passchier, who will be splitting her time between GSES and other schools in the central Rocky Mountain region that are at various stages of implementing the EL approach.
“My job is to work closely with the school’s leadership team and teams of teachers on implementing the core practices of EL,” Passchier explained.
“One of the biggest things about implementing EL is you go slow to go fast,” she said of conversion schools, as opposed to starting an EL school from the ground up.
That means doing what’s necessary to create the EL school environment, while at the same time making sure not to do away with practices that have worked well in the past at a particular school.
“We want to do what’s best for the kids,” Passchier said. “If there are good things in place, we want to keep helping to make those things be successful.”