In RSU 20

'Expeditionary Learning' coming to Searsport high school

By Tanya Mitchell | Apr 26, 2013
Photo by: Tanya Mitchell From left, Regional School Unit 20 Director Sharon Catus, RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter and Director Jason Perkins consider the benefits of Expeditionary Learning at the regular meeting Tuesday night, April 23, at Searsport District High School.

Searsport — Imagine students spending school days studying the ecology of Sears Island, creating oral histories about the island or conducting trail work, rather than obtaining all information in a traditional classroom setting.

That is the kind of learning Searsport District High School (SDHS) Principal Brian Campbell aims to bring to students at the high and middle schools, and he hopes to get the students started on their first learning expedition in the spring of 2014 if all goes as planned.

Campbell made a presentation about the program, called "Expeditionary Learning," at the regular Regional School Unit 20 meeting Tuesday night, April 23, at Searsport District High School.

Prior to his slide show presentation about the program, Campbell passed out colored slips of paper to all of the directors and administrators. Based on the color of the paper each received, Campbell broke everyone into groups of three and asked each group to consider first what they knew about Expeditionary Learning and then to make comments about what they learned about the program following the presentation.

Campbell said the Expeditionary Learning model has been in use at two schools in Maine — Casco Bay High School and King Middle School in Portland — and both schools have seen students perform better on standardized tests and experienced better student engagement across the board. The learning model started with eight schools across the nation, a number that has swelled to 161, and is now used at schools in 29 states.

"They apply learning to real world issues," said Campbell.

That style of teaching and learning would involve using the existing curriculum with some fine-tuning to insure the learning expeditions, which Campbell said typically span between six and eight weeks, involve several academic subjects.

One example of the kind of expedition students here might participate in, said Campbell, would come through a partnership with the local stewardship group Friends of Sears Island. The expedition, said Campbell, would be based around a question that would drive students to learn more about the island itself, its history and possibilities for the future.

"They would go off-site and work with field experts," said Campbell.

That kind of study, said Campbell, might include aspects of science, history, English and more — depending on the nature of the expedition.

Getting the program off the ground, said Campbell, will mean a lot of professional development for the staff at both schools, but Campbell said he has spoken to the staff and all have indicated they are excited about bringing that kind of change to Searsport area students.

"You may be a science person working in an art classroom," said Campbell. "It's going to affect the classroom structure."

Campbell said that's because, as well as fostering stronger student-teacher relationships, the Expeditionary Learning model moves away from the idea that the teacher is the sole provider of knowledge. Instead it encourages students to learn through field experience and working with field experts.

Becoming a part of the system of existing Expeditionary Learning schools, said Campbell, will also come with start-up costs. Expeditionary Learning — headquartered in New York — has regional offices with which the school would conduct its preliminary work, such as staff development and continued support throughout the life of the initial four-year partnership contract.

The cost to get started, Campbell said, would include $17,000 for the initial summer work and about $45,000 annually, a fee that would cover continued staff training to implement the core practices of the program. Campbell said eventually the annual costs would be covered through revenue he expects the district to bring in as part of the international student exchange program he outlined at the April 9 board meeting, at which time he successfully pitched the idea of bringing Chinese students to SDHS. He has also written 11 grants to help cover the costs of travel, off-site staff development, materials and supplies.

The grant money would also be earmarked for renovations to the former Hamilton Marine seine loft on Main Street in Searsport. Campbell said he is working with Searsport businessman and seine loft owner Wayne Hamilton and Belfast architect Mike Hogan to make the building a secondary off-site learning center that may house biology and chemistry labs, as well as the boat-building program the high school currently offers as part of a partnership with Penobscot Marine Museum.

Director Charles Poirier of Belfast said he liked the ideas outlined in Campbell's presentation because it differed from the traditional education model he once heard an educator describe as "the sit, spit and get" approach.

"It just doesn't work," said Poirier.

Campbell said if the Board approved his request to join the Expeditionary Learning network, he could have students engaged in the first expedition by spring of 2014.

Directors voted unanimously to authorize Campbell to join the network, and Campbell said he would hold community forums to inform the public about what changes that might bring to the two schools.

"I think we're really going to advance our students," said Director Alan Wood prior to the vote.

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