INTRODUCTION - Our Implementation of EL Education
Our Decade (plus) with EL Education: Names Change, Missions Don't...
REALMS began its partnership with EL Education in 2002-2003, just a year and a half after opening our doors as a charter school in Bend. When the first class of Rimrock Academy (our original name) students took their chairs in 2001, we did not have a clear pedagogical focus with which to greet them... but we did have a mission to make a difference with these students who were struggling in their home schools. It was obvious that the traditional schools and the traditional approach to teaching and learning were not working for these students, and it was Rimrock's job to find a solution. However, aside from being small and teaching experientially, we, the founding staff, were not yet completely clear about exactly how teaching and learning ought to be different if we were going to reach these students.
Before the end of our first year as a school it was already crystal clear that we needed to focus on teaching that was engaging and experiential, curriculum that was connected to something that mattered to our students, and lastly on bringing together a close community of learners who had the relationship skills and character necessary to work together to overcome past struggles. We needed a model that included each of these elements, and we found it in EL Education (then Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound). In year two, we initiated a partnership with EL, we began a process to clarify our schools's educational vision, and we even initiated a name change of our own... we would soon become Rimrock Expeditionary Alternative Learning Middle School, or REALMS.
Over the first few years of partnership with ELOB we focused our efforts in two areas. Our first goal was to build a positive school culture and develop students' performance and relational character skills through structures such as crew, habits of work, and an emphasis on adventure. Simultaneously, our faculty dug into designing engaging, inter-disciplinary Learning Expeditions that focused on real world problems or issues in our community. The real world, context-based curriculum helped our students, who already saw little value in school, begin to see the reason for learning. As we implemented the EL model in those first few years we discovered that many of our students were finding some success and happiness at school that they had not experienced before. We heard from many parents that, for the first time in years, their son/daughter was actually excited to go to school. In year two and three our enrollment grew slowly and while most of our students still came to us with significant academic, social, or economic challenges in their lives, we began to hear from families in our community that were interested in our school despite the fact that their children had not experienced significant hardship or struggle at school before. There was a slow shift afoot as our reputation changed from being a school "where struggling students go" toward becoming a school where students "enjoy going to school" and "learn in innovative ways". As a school, we began to be seen less for who our students were before they came to REALMS and more for who our students were becoming as they engaged in powerful and purposeful learning.
Since 2002 we have maintained that partnership with EL (with the exception of two "years off" to focus on implementation) and have benefitted from the consistently forward looking and dynamic professional development approach that is at the heart of the model. Over the years we have had the opportunity to follow EL's lead by bringing focus to our work on areas such as: literacy and reading comprehension work, delivering effective lessons, student engaged assessment efforts, academic mindsets, embracing and leveraging the Common Core State Standards, high quality work, and a great deal more.
Now, as a veteran school in the network, we still find ourselves constantly challenged and drawn forward by our work with EL. The past three years of implementation reviews and the credentialing profile below hint at the areas we have been focusing on and at the complexity of trying to implement a model as rich, robust, and multi-layered as EL. The growing and learning never stops!