Durango pursues new learning methods

Schools to adopt innovative programs to improve student achievement

After watching three Durango elementary schools begin the process to become International Baccalaureate schools, Miller Middle School and one of Durango High Schoolís small learning communities have decided to bring the program into their classrooms as well.

Meanwhile, another of the high schoolís small learning communities and Escalante Middle School have decided to adopt a different nationally recognized program: Expeditionary Learning.

The moves are part of the districtís strategic plan instructing schools to pursue innovative, research-based programs proved to raise student achievement, said Victor Figueroa, assistant superintendent for student achievement with the district.

At the high school, the programs based on Expeditionary Learning and International Baccalaureate will join a school centered on creativity and innovation to form the new small learning community trio beginning next year. The schools decided on their respective programs after more than a year of information gathering and discussions among staff members.

International Baccalaureate, an internationally-recognized program focused on theme-based learning, emphasizes interconnectedness between content areas and aims to produce globally-minded learners. The program emphasizes rigor, depth over breadth and student-directed learning.

There are 67 International Baccalaureate schools in Colorado, but most are concentrated on the Front Range, said Ann Wink, a regional development specialist with the program. Durango is among the first rural, small school districts in Colorado to pursue IB authorization and one of the first in the nation to implement the program from elementary through high school grades, Wink said.

Needham, Florida Mesa and Animas Valley elementary schools already are implementing IB practices, and the first two will go for authorization this spring.

Nationwide, more districts are going the way of Durango in using the IBís entire primary and middle years program, from first through 10th grade, Wink said. Creating that continuum from elementary through high school helps the program build upon itself each year, she said.

Durango High School plans to complete the program continuum by adding the IBís Diploma Program, a rigorous curriculum for juniors and seniors, three or four years down the road, Assistant Principal LeAnne Garcia said.

In their first step of training, almost 80 teachers and administrators from Miller and Durango High School spent Friday and Saturday learning from IB trainers about the programís philosophy and teaching methods.

The Expeditionary Learning model focuses on active learning, constant challenge and collaboration. It aims to engage students through real-world applications, project work and connection with public audiences.

At the middle school level, the curriculum will enhance many of the programs and improvements Escalante already is making, Principal Tim Arnold said. It also will take advantage of some of the schoolís amenities such as its low ropes course, riverside location and greenhouse, Arnold said.

Escalante and Durango High School educators are planning their own on-site trainings for Expeditionary Learning and will attend summer academies and national conferences later this year, Figueroa said.

Funding for professional development around both programs, including $60,000 for the recent two-day IB training, is covered by a combination of district funds, grant money from Marc and Jane Katz Family Fund and money from the $3.2 million mill levy increase voters approved in November 2010.