The Sopris Sun

Expeditionary learning at CRES? Not at this time

By Debbie Bruell

Sopris Sun Correspondent

With a new principal and assistant principal at Crystal River Elementary School this year, many changes are underway. One change that has been under consideration is whether the school will become an expeditionary learning (EL) school. A survey of CRES staff last month, however, indicated that while more than twice as many staff members support a partnership with EL Education as oppose it, CRES will not be moving forward with EL at this time.

EL Education only agrees to partner with schools in which at least 80 percent of staff are in support of the partnership. The results of the recent CRES EL Readiness Survey, which were shared with the School Accountability Committee last week, indicated that 61 percent of CRES staff (27 staff members) supported entering into a partnership with EL, close to 30 percent (13 staff members) did not support entering into a partnership with EL, and 9 (four staff members) were undecided.

EL Education is a New York-based non-profit organization. According to its website, EL Education’s overarching vision is to increase student engagement, and elevate and expand student achievement, by focusing on three core areas: mastering knowledge and skills, character, and high quality student work. For more information, go to eleducation.org.

The process of exploring EL was put on hold last year as the staff worked through some leadership issues. When Matt Koenigsknecht (or Mr. K, as the kids call him) was hired as the new principal beginning this fall, he was charged with re-initiating this process.

As part of the exploration process, Mr. K developed a shared online document for staff members to collectively brainstorm the potential costs and benefits of this model for CRES. He encouraged all staff to share their thoughts and concerns about EL on this document and make sure they were as informed as possible about this educational approach.

In December, Mr. K decided to give the EL Readiness Survey to the staff. According to Mr. K, this survey determines whether staff at a school are ready to take an official vote on the possibility of adopting EL. Mr. K told The Sun that he was “a little surprised” by the results of the survey: “I thought the percentage for agreeing would have been a little higher.”

During the exploration process, Mr. K chose not to share with staff his personal opinions about EL. However, once the results of the survey were presented, he did disclose to his staff that he voted in support of the partnership.

Roaring Fork School District Superintendent Diana Sirko told The Sun that she was disappointed by the results of the EL readiness survey at CRES as well “only because I like the kind of wrap-around comprehensive professional development that goes with EL.” She acknowledged, however, that “if you don’t get a critical mass of staff that has bought into any new program, the chances of it being successful are not good.”

Resistance to EL

What were the specific aspects of the EL Education model that some staff members objected to? Mr. K told The Sopris Sun that some staff members’ concerns about EL included: the cost of the professional development provided by EL Education; the fear that a great deal of resources would be invested in EL only to have it “fizzle” after a couple of years; and concerns about the increased effort and planning time that would be required in order to deliver high quality, integrated, project-based learning.

According to Sirko, the cost of EL professional development is comparable to that of other full-school reform models. She also told The Sun that EL Education requires that the district sign a five-year contract in order to enter into a partnership with them. In other words, the district is required to make a five-year commitment to EL from the start, as it did with Glenwood Springs Elementary School starting in 2013.

Sirko said that the training provided by EL would “ratchet down” each year as staff capacity “ratchets up.” Staff need a great deal of support at the start, she said, but after five years staff should be able to continue their EL Education program with just some occasional professional development for “fine-tuning.”

Sirko also said that the amount of professional development a school continues to receive after those five years would vary depending on the situation. If there are multiple EL schools in the district, there could be more opportunities to bring EL in for some multi-school trainings. Sirko said that Glenwood Springs Middle School is in the “early beginning stages” of considering a partnership with EL.

Mr. K said that there is also the idea among some CRES staff that “we can be an amazing neighborhood school and we don’t need to spend a lot of resources to be something different.” His response to this idea has been, “We are the neighborhood public school and we will always be the neighborhood public school. And we need to add some layers to who we are.”

Similarly, Sirko said that all schools need to be continuously finding ways to grow and improve. The exploration of EL at CRES, she explained, “is not a conversation about change or no change, the question is, ‘Is this the vehicle we want to use for how we change?’”  

Sirko also noted that some CRES staff members seemed to feel that EL was being pushed on them from the outside. “It’s human nature,” Sirko said, “if anything feels top down or outside in, people push back.” In contrast, at GSES, Sirko said that “staff there got involved from the very start.”

The EL Readiness Survey included many questions, including a question asking staff members what they did to learn about EL Education. The results indicated that only 51 percent of staff had done a “close reading of EL Education Core Practices” and only 64 percent had explored the EL Education website and online resources.

When asked whether he was surprised to read these results, Mr. K said “I was a little bit surprised, but I will say that everyone learns in different ways and that there were many different types of opportunities for people to get the information they needed.”   

One of the next steps, Mr. K explained, “will be to analyze the parts of EL that really resonated with us. How can we build those things into our programming? And for the 30 percent who had some things that they weren’t ready to get behind: What were those things? How can we keep those things in mind as we move forward?”

“One thing that’s really, really hard,” Mr. K continued, “is that we still have a super-majority of people who want to move forward with EL. But we’re not able to do so at this time.” When asked whether the door was still open to the possibility of CRES partnering with EL in the future, Mr. K responded: “If and when we as a staff feel like we want to re-open the conversation about EL, that’s when we’ll re-open that conversation … it needs to come from the staff.”  

Tremendous progress

Mr. K emphasized that regardless of the EL survey, tremendous progress has been made at CRES this year and they have built the foundation for continued development of the school. Sirko agreed, pointing out how hard the staff has worked this year to build student engagement, make learning relevant to kids and create a sense of unity among the staff.

The most notable positive change this year, according Mr. K, is the adoption of the “crew” structure. Crew has taken the form of 30-minute community meetings in each CRES classroom at the start of every day. Teachers set aside this time for students to reflect on themselves as learners and as part of a community, and to set personal goals. Crew has received “overwhelmingly positive reviews from parents, teachers and kids,” Mr. K said.

Interestingly, crew is part of the EL Education model. The school district contracted with EL Education to provide training in the crew model to staff across the district.

There has also been tremendous growth among the “adult culture” at the school this year, Mr. K said. The same crew structure used with students is being used among staff, which means that staff meetings include spending time “exploring who we are, who are community is and what our values are.”

Mr. K noted that the staff has done a significant amount of work around defining their identity this year. They have identified seven core values that they “hold dear as a staff”: joy, compassion, integrity, respect, relationships, creativity and equity. And they have created a new mission statement: CRES challenges and inspires all students to develop character skills, reach their academic potential and become global citizens.

Now that they have identified these core values and developed a mission statement in the abstract, Mr. K explained, they can filter any specific program or approaches through these values and ideas to decide if it’s something they as a staff want to adopt.

“Who knows, down the road, what path they (CRES staff) will choose to go,” Sirko said. “If it’s not EL, I’m confident they’ll find something else that matches their ideas and energy around improvement.”

Published in The Sopris Sun on January 21, 2016.