Glenwood Springs Middle School on an expedition to be a ‘kind, compassionate’ school
The way Glenwood Springs Middle School rallied around a student who was recently injured in a bike accident and turned it into a teaching moment for fellow students serves as a case study for the type of school GSMS strives to become.
“Since the beginning of my first year here, we have had a lot of discussions around the kind of school we want to be, and we have worked to intentionally build our culture around compassion,” third-year GSMS Principal Joel Hathaway said.
A newly adopted approach that the school is developing to educate children is just the vehicle to get there, he said in explaining the move to become an official EL Education school this fall.
The goal itself wasn’t to join its pre/kindergarten-through-fifth-grade counterpart, Glenwood Springs Elementary School, and become an EL, or expeditionary learning, school, Hathaway elaborated.
Rather, it was an opportunity to use the extensive network of resources provided through the official EL Education organization to be that “kind, compassionate” school, he said.
The school’s response to the bicycle incident was a great example of the school “being in tune with the community,” and in turn receiving back from the community, Hathaway said.
After eighth-grader Forest Williams was seriously hurt in a bike wreck while riding home from school last month, the school invited community experts to come in an talk about bicycle safety and give demonstrations on basic bicycle maintenance.
A week later, a group of Alpine Bank employees offered to donate bike helmets to GSMS students who didn’t have them. Williams’ decision to wear a helmet was credited for saving his life.
Likewise, after the school paid Glenwood Adventure Co. to take the seventh-grade class rafting as part of the new EL-driven outdoor program, the company donated the money back in support of providing even more outdoors opportunities for students.
That symbiotic relationship between students and their school, and between the school and the larger community, is part of what EL is all about, Hathaway said.
GSMS becomes the second Roaring Fork District school to formally adopt EL as its guiding model. One of its primary feeder schools, GSES, is now in its fifth year as an official EL school. However, many EL concepts are now used in all Roaring Fork Schools.
EL, which grew out of the popular Outward Bound program, places an emphasis on projects-based learning through “expeditions,” such as service projects, hands-on learning using real-life demonstrations both in and out of the classroom, and outdoor education. Self-discovery, empathy and caring, diversity and inclusion, and a strong connection to the natural world are central.
‘crew, not passengers’
Teamwork is key, which is where the daily character-building routine known as “crew” comes into play. All district schools from Glenwood Springs to Basalt use crew as a way to bring students closer together with each other and with their mentors.
In fact, there’s a saying in EL Education that, “we are crew, not passengers” in life.
“Crew is a ritual, a coming together, and the creation of a close-knit student community,” according to the official EL Education website, “… a place where character education, adventure and team building are intentional, assuring success for all students … where they can be their best selves while lifting up their peers to achieve more than they think possible.”
Because of the success of the EL approach at GSES, it made sense to expand the model to the middle school level, Hathaway said.
As is required of schools considering the EL model, GSMS went through an exploratory phase that stretched over 18 months involving staff seminars, formation of a parent advisory council and community meetings. As was the case at GSES, more than 85 percent of the teaching staff needed to express buy-in for the model to be adopted.
“Ours was near unanimous,” Hathaway said. And, there was a broad consensus among parents who wanted to move in that direction, as well, he said.
GSMS was assigned an EL school designer, same as GSES and the Grand Valley schools in Parachute, which are also EL schools. That person helps the school develop its unique plan to be implemented over five years.
The plan remains a work in progress, Hathaway said, focusing on three key areas: producing high-quality student work, mastery of academic skills and knowledge, and building school culture and student character.
Multi-grade crews made up of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders meet every day, and GSMS has larger “house meetings” every Friday that have more of a whole-school focus.
Teachers at GSMS say they have embraced the concepts of EL as supportive of who they strive to be as teachers.
“EL Education is such an amazing opportunity for teachers and students,” sixth-grade science teacher Autumn Rivera said. “No longer is school a test, test, test atmosphere, but instead is a place where all types of learning are celebrated.”
An example was the sixth-grade river studies last school year, where various experts from the community were brought in to talk about the importance of rivers, river ecology and water resources. The students then developed presentations about Glenwood Springs’ riverfront restoration efforts.
“The real world is brought into the classroom, and students are taken out into the community,” Rivera said. “We could not do half the things we do at our school without our amazing community.”
Rob Buirgy leads the school’s outdoor adventure program.
“For years before this I’ve always struggled with the fact that very few of our youth get to experience the incredible outdoors that we live in,” Buirgy said. “Taking kids outdoors can authentically build many different skills that help them be more successful and motivated in the classroom.”
Among those skills, he said, are teamwork, mindfulness, health and wellness, goal setting, problem solving, risk management and decision making, using solo time to reflect, and strategies to decrease stress and anxiety.
Sonja Linman was hired this year to work as a drug prevention specialist in the schools, a position funded by the state’s marijuana tax money. The crew approach, and its focus on positive relationships and compassion, is a perfect setting to do that, she said.
“When you have smaller groups of students working together more as a family, it really changes the whole tenor and culture of the school,” Linman said. “It helps student learn how to speak with each other, and how to talk to adults. And it opens up doors on how to interact with the community on a more collaborative basis.”
This being the first year of the official EL program at GSMS, Hathaway emphasized that it will take time to fully develop the plan. Full expeditions will be introduced in future years, but many teachers are already writing expeditions into their lesson plans.
“If it’s developing organically, we want to support that,” he said.
Mentor schools, including the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning in Denver and King Middle School in Portland, Maine — two of the original EL schools in the country — are also instrumental in helping GSMS build its program, he said.