Katrina Wellman-Machut works on prefixes and suffixes with her first- and second-graders at North Routt Community Charter School, where Expeditionary Learning has taken hold.

Photo by Ben Ingersoll

Katrina Wellman-Machut works on prefixes and suffixes with her first- and second-graders at North Routt Community Charter School, where Expeditionary Learning has taken hold.

Expeditionary Learning changing the way NRCCS students meet standards

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— At North Routt Community Charter School, learning is different, and its 81 students and seven teachers soak in every minute of it.

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A North Routt Community Charter School student works on a literacy assignment in Amy Cosgrove's third- and fourth-grade class.

The school’s curriculum is focused on Expeditionary Learning, and inside the campus’s practically brand-new facility in Clark, the traditional ways of meeting state standards are approached in a new light. Expeditionary Learning is giving students the opportunity to experience new ideas in an adventurous way, and it’s something more than 160 schools in America have implemented.

The school is in its second year of being an exclusively Expeditionary Learning environment, and a stroll down the charter school's main hall reveals what makes it a little bit different.

North Routt Community Charter School's Expeditionary Learning hinges on teaching students their core subjects under the umbrella of a singular theme. The school's third- and fourth-graders, for example, are studying the Lewis and Clark journey, and each classroom embarks on two expeditions every year.

But those journeys cover more than social studies.

In their expedition, Amy Cosgrove’s third- and fourth-graders also are learning the essentials of reading, writing, math and literacy.

The students aren’t just turning in assignments and getting back a letter grade. NRCCS first-year principal Brandon LaChance said the way the school learns — an adventurous team effort — embodies the same qualities the Clark community holds so dearly.

“All learning targets start with ‘I can,’” LaChance said. “It’s not ‘I’m going to teach you this.’ It’s saying, ‘I’m going to make sure you can do this.’ That’s our level of measurement throughout the time.”

The campus bundles all grades, aside from kindergarten, which is in its own wing. First and second grade are together as well as third and fourth, fifth and sixth, and seventh and eighth. And outside each classroom a “learning target” is posted, displaying students’ work and the Expeditionary Learning journey they are embarking on accompanied with an explanation of how they reached their final product.

If a student clearly doesn’t understand a concept, the teacher will immediately see through this display and can address it.

“It’s pretty much changing education in its whole setup,” LaChance said. “Even non-expeditionary schools, a lot of the lessons and new things that are happening are taking the idea of having a learning target for every single thing the kids understand.”

Teachers adjusting, too

North Routt Community Charter School’s students aren’t the only ones finding out that Expeditionary Learning is a little outside the norm; its teachers still are in a bit of a transition mode.

When LaChance left his post as the school’s seventh- and eighth-grade teacher to take over the principal job, Mike Beurskens assumed the role.

Most of Beurskens professional life has been dedicated to civil engineering, so teaching in general still is fairly new to NRCCS’ newest educator.

He is quickly realizing the freedoms for students and staff that come with being an exclusively Expeditionary Learning school. And as a father of students in Steamboat’s public schools, he sees both sides of the fence.

“It’s been a lot of work for me, but it’s been so fun because it’s a different way of teaching,” Beurskens said. “In this school, the big kids look out for the little kids, and the little kids have those big kids. When I talk to people in Steamboat, they’re like, ‘What’s it like?’ That’s how it is.”

To help teachers like Beurskens, Expeditionary Learning schools have a contracted a school designer, a regional adviser who periodically visits campuses to observe and assist in staff development.

On Jan. 23, NRCCS school designer Jaime Passchier dropped by the campus to work “on the basics,” LaChance said, with teachers like Beurskens and Cosgrove, who double up as the school’s Expeditionary Learning coach.

Alongside Cosgrove, Passchier bounces from class to class about a dozen times per year to see NRCCS through its ongoing transition as an Expeditionary Learning-only institution.

“Amy has been part of our little coaching cohort,” Passchier said. “It’s pulling those instructional coaches in. We’re talking about the practices a coach needs to help teachers become thinkers and reflective on their own practice.”

Setbacks come with advantages

Being a charter school comes with its share of monetary setbacks.

NRCCS operates at 15 percent less per-pupil dollars than Steamboat’s public schools do. Thus, LaChance said, things like transportation and lunchtime options are limited or even nonexistent.

But ask the first-year principal about how funding sets his school back, and he will be quick to remind you it has its immeasurable freedoms.

Every school day, students get one hour of physical education, a rarity in schools, LaChance said. There are no busses picking students up for school, but it’s a positive reminder that parents are actively on campus just about every day.

And it frees up usually binding curriculum demands to do things like Expeditionary Learning. Instead of numerous textbooks and worksheets, students are learning outdoors and engaging across all grade levels during their learning expeditions.

“Our staff is underpaid,” LaChance said. “We get paid much less than those in town, but at the same time, it’s these entities that make them feel like this isn’t just a teaching job. It’s more than that.”

“The power behind expeditions is kids are always doing great things, and it’s really compelling and motivating,” Passchier said.

Each year, LaChance and Passchier meet to gauge where the school is in its transition and what its goals are in the next step forward.

The progress NRCCS has made, Passchier said, is becoming more noticeable with each visit.

“I was able to be here last year and that was my first time in this building,” Passchier said. “It’s always had a great culture, and now I’m seeing that real shift moving to true professional culture and leveraging EL to its highest level.”

To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email bingersoll@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll

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