Charter school focused on engaging early adolescents in learning

By Annette Klinefelter-Dingle, MA, educational administration, Riverside Charter School Planning Team May 21, 2011 05:00 am

In the months since receiving funding to plan for a charter school focused on mid-grade levels, the Riverside Planning Team has been exploring the very best models and practices for engaging early adolescents in learning.

With me on the Riverside planning team are Sadie Coberley, Ph.D; Ray Mace, retired school superintendent; Jodi Harvey, Conflict Resolution consultant; Linda Bozak, Special Education aide and retired teacher; Paola Pringle, engineer.

Planners have been walking the talk – learning for ourselves about the research and practices that keep kids engaged in learning.

To date, we have visited two model middle schools in Oregon. JGEMS (Jane Goodall Environmental School), a charter school within a middle school and REALMS (Rimrock Expeditionary Alternative Learning Middle School). Both schools utilize project-based learning focused on real world problem solving.

JGEMS is the highest performing middle school in the Salem-Keizer school district. Ray and I facilitated a classroom discussion with students about JGEMS. The kids were articulate and passionate advocates for what they describe to be the best school they could ever hope for. Students in both schools largely attribute their experience to the knowledge and flexibility of school staff as well as a culture of peer acceptance. They claim bullying is much less frequent at their schools.

Riley, a student at REALMS, affirms this assertion. “REALMS has much less bullying than other schools I’ve gone to. I think it is because we have a common goal to celebrate difference.”

Last week in Bend, the Riverside Planning Team had a similar experience. REALMS is one of 165 Expeditionary Learning schools nationwide. Expeditionary Learning, an affiliate of Outward Bound, brings learning alive for students through hands-on experiences.

“I observed REALMS students designing bridges” Jodi said. “They chose any bridge in the world, researched when it was built, why, and the people who benefitted. They used math to reduce the actual dimensions of the bridge to scale, and are presenting finished products including bridge models, dimensions, summary of historical context, and current realities.”

Expeditionary Learning (EL) is emerging as the ideal model for Riverside Charter Academy. Recognized as an exemplar model by Arnie Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, EL schools consistently outperform non-EL schools on standardized tests.

Ray, a retired school superintendent and educator of 30 years, describes his experience with eighth-grade EL students, “If I’d not been looking at the students, I would have wondered what high quality graduate school they were attending. They presented an expedition on economic variables in their community. I’ve never experienced such articulate and knowledgeable eighth graders in my career.”

Riverside Charter Academy hopes to have a charter approved by the end of August.

“We are using science and research to guide decision-making,” according to Sadie. “Bottom line, EL appears to be the exemplar best practice for engaging middle-school students in science and technology, future determinants of our local and national economies. EL integrates science, math, writing, reading comprehension, organization, and presentation skills. All are critical to our future as a nation. As a BHHS alumna, I could have benefitted from this integrated approach to learning.”

Riverside’s next research project involves an assessment of existing district 5-8 instructional practices, school climate, and physical plant design by national experts on research-based practices for middle school learners. “We can always do things better” states Brian Hodge, District 17-C superintendent. “We look forward to their analysis and opportunities for future collaboration with Riverside.”

Riverside will also host an EL day camp Aug. 15 through Aug. 19, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Camp facilitators will bring EL learning alive. There are 20 free spots available for fourth- through seventh-grade youth to explore Brookings’ history, ecosystems, and peoples of past and present.

For more information phone 541-661-0851.