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Real-world education: Portland school a model for Expeditionary Learning

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Real-world education: Portland school a model for Expeditionary Learning

PORTLAND — Building wind turbines, collecting biological data on sea life and writing policy proposals for lawmakers about clean air are usually tasks for engineers, scientists and attorneys.

At King Middle School, it's just part of the curriculum.

Throughout the school year, students at King take the traditional school-day lessons of reading, writing, art and math, and use them to address real-world problems, such as energy, pollution and invasive species.

"It's a combination of the sciences and humanities," said Pat Crowley-Rockwell, teaching strategist at King. "It's all about taking what kids need to know and connecting it to the real world."

She said the learning style, known as Expeditionary Learning and started by a company with the same name, helps students look at themselves as life-long successful learners and teaches them how to effectively advocate for the things they want in life.

On May 10, King was able to show off its work and hosted about 65 educators from around the state and country, who watched and interacted with students and teachers in their classrooms.

King is part of a national network of about 160 EL schools, both charter and traditional public schools. And while King is funded just like any other public school, it uses its non-traditional teaching model to generate revenue, regularly hosting events like the May 10 seminar for teachers.

The educators are charged to visit the school for professional development, giving King added revenue to help support its teaching style, said David Grant, who works part-time for EL and part-time at King as the teacher-training coordinator.

King, which is a founding EL school, along with Casco Bay High School, has been teaching kids this real-world style learning for two decades in one of the poorest and most culturally diverse areas in the state.

More than half of students, 54 percent, qualify for free or reduced lunch. Students also represent 29 different languages, with more than 30 percent learning English as a second language.

Grant said despite these challenges, King students continue to score highly on statewide tests and show strong improvement – despite the school's C grade in the recent statewide school report cards released by the Maine Department of Education.

"We're going to be in the C range unless we jettison the kids learning a new language," Grant said, referring to the challenge posed by English-language based standardized testing. "We have an 80-kid waiting list to get into this school. Name another public middle school in the state with that long of a waiting list. Our students are learning and are models for other schools. The report from the state is just an irrelevant distraction."

In addition to bringing educators to the school, Grant said King also promotes professional development among its staff by sending them to other EL schools around the country to learn. Those trips are paid for through fundraising, he said.

In Gus Goodwin's eighth-grade "Tech Ed" classroom, students buzzed around the room testing turbine blades and tweaking the designs on the power-generating windmills they crafted. Finished models – completed by other students earlier in the year – are decorated with wild colors and student drawings and provide examples of what the final products will look like.

Goodwin said his students have been working on the projects since early March, first learning about wind and how it can be used to generate electricity, and are now putting their knowledge to work. The wind turbines will be entered into a Internet competition to see who can generate the most electricity using a small fan as artificial wind.

Goodwin, who has taught at King for 13 years, said the integrated teaching style allows students to connect what they're learning in one class and apply it to others. Students read about wind energy in one class, study the environmental impact in another, and build wind turbines in his class, he said, allowing them to integrate their learning in every class.

He said the connections students make to learning at King stick with them throughout school and into their careers. At a recent school field trip to the University of Maine at Orono for a "Wind Challenge," Goodwin saw his teaching come full circle when a former student, now graduated from the engineering program, approached him.

"I was standing there eating pizza and this guy comes up to me and said, 'hey, Mr. Goodwin, I just took my last class, I'm an engineer. ... Your class opened my eyes to that,'" Goodwin said. "That's just one example of how deeper learning stays with kids. That was a great day."

In a classroom down the hall, sixth-grade teacher Lisa Hatch showed her students how to write persuasive letters to include in clean-air policy brochures her class will give to state legislators.

For this expedition, called "Oceans of Air," students have been studying the ins and outs of the milestone federal legislation on air quality, known as the Clean Air Act, while also learning how to take air quality samples and analyze the data.

Two classmates, Cole McGhie and Cyrus McCachran, outlined their proposals during class on paper before formally putting it all together into a formal, typed format.

McGhie said one of the most important things to remember when talking about the impact of the Clean Air Act, is that there's still work to be done.

"I think it's helping. It would be a lot worse without it," he said, noting that thousands of people die prematurely every year due to poor air quality. "It could improve, it's definitely not perfect."

McCachran said air quality could be improved if "people were more honest and didn't try to hide what they're doing."

But, he said, "we need more people searching to find violations and we need a quicker process. Sometimes it can take 20 years to make a change, and by that time people lose interest."

The success of students at King has attracted national attention, with the first of a two-part segment of a "PBS Newshour" profile of the school, which aired on Jan. 30. The program featured the hands-on, real-world teaching approach and highlighted students building the wind turbines and problem-solving robots.

The segment emphasized the importance of student improvement over intelligence, something central to King's teaching style, Crowley-Rockwell said.

"The kids really use their time efficiently and effectively and we try to teach them that," she said. "What kids do in this school readies them to be successful in the world. And we like to show all kids can do that."

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow Will on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.