New learning models will greet district students this year

Homework for students hasn’t begun yet, but administrators, teachers and support staff labored over summer break to prepare a more effective year for your children. Buildings have been cleaned, curriculum prepared, schedules created and classes populated across the district. A big year lies ahead. The strategic plan requires tending to.

Under Dr. Keith Owen’s watch, Durango schools undertook a challenge to better education for all district students. The strategic plan process demands that the district continually work to improve learning for your children. Our new superintendent, Dan Snowberger, has embraced this charge with a passion and an eye toward accountability. The plan rests upon the belief that the status quo is to simply present reality and the future is an aspiration to build toward, which then compels all district educators to enrich their instruction in measurable ways. Tomorrow’s instruction will be better than yesterday’s teaching and we must be able to show it. But this stance takes sweat. It is for this reason that I found myself at Durango High School that first week of summer vacation working with colleagues from Escalante Middle School and Base Camp in Durango High School on this year’s expeditionary learning work plan.

Both schools, EMS and DHS, adopted the EL model so that their students will experience what we believe is a system of care and rigor. We deem that expeditionary learning can take both schools from good to great, which is what the community deserves.

It is important to note that this is the same drive that led to the adoption of International Baccalaureate at Atlas in DHS, Miller Middle School, Animas Valley, Needham and Florida Mesa. Teachers district-wide care about your children’s growth.

So what is it within expeditionary learning that drew both EMS and DHS toward its light? The answer, simply, is that EL is student-centered. Every decision is made with the student as the most important variable. Whatever the school chooses to act upon must benefit the kids. The job of schools is learning and, according to EL, learning must be active, challenging, meaningful, public and collaborative. It is not necessarily project-based, although projects are a part of it, but it is always focused on the student.

At the base of EL are the 10 design principles that reflect the values and beliefs of Kurt Hahn, founder of Outward Bound. German-born Hahn was an educator who escaped the clutches of Nazi Germany in 1933 and then founded Gordonstoun, a school in Britain that was based upon his educational philosophy. Hahn held that education should foster personal responsibility for learning through curiosity, self-discovery, collaboration, competition and self-reflection. He also believed that an experience based in the natural world and steeped in empathy, caring, service, and compassion would create a well-rounded person. Hahn also saw the lessons that arose from the recognition of our diversity and the benefits to be won from an embracement of inclusion. And finally, he understood that success could only be borne from a confidence derived from the meeting of increasingly difficult challenges.

But education today requires more than just platitudes and aspirations. The more than 150 schools that work together in the EL network have created 38 core practices, ranging from aligning standards to shaping school operations to elevate student achievement. Each school in the network must take on an annual work plan to install and develop elements of the core practices, thus creating a culture of continual improvement.

In Escalante’s case, we have initially taken on six elements of the core practices, knowing that more work lies ahead. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was Durango, for that matter. These six elements orbit around two core strategies: knowing students better and affording students more ownership for their learning.

The first strategy is based on a school-wide shared period called “crew.” It takes its name from Hahn’s belief that onboard a functional and effective ship, all members are crew; no one is a passenger. This “class” will be smaller – about 16 students – than regular classes and will focus on building relationships, academic progress monitoring and character development. Students will share in directed discussions, problem-based initiatives and reflection to build positive peer connections and self-reliance.

The second strategy is centered on more effective instruction through clear standards-based learning targets. Escalante teachers will produce daily objectives that students will preview, work toward and review on a daily basis. This process fosters personal ownership over individual progression toward accomplishment of these goals in each classroom.

These practices already exist in several classes throughout our district, but Escalante’s goal is to make them true in every class for every student. It is a big dream, but it is a worthy endeavor. We hold no illusions about the difficulty of the journey, but we trust these first steps will make a difference for your children. Please join us as we embark upon this exciting adventure come Tuesday. We Eagles will soar together.

John Hise is an instructional coach at Escalante Middle School. Reach him at