EL High School Components

Overview of Design Features and Required Structures in Start-Up Expeditionary Learning High Schools

The Expeditionary Learning high school model has grown over the last decade from ten Design Principles that infuse a critical set of values into all aspects of schooling to a set of Core Practice Benchmarks that describe how schools can promote student success.  These practices have been refined and made more concrete as a result of the practical lessons learned from planning and opening the first group of new high schools financed by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Program Essentials in New High Schools

  • Learning expeditions, the major vehicle for delivering curriculum, integrate the teaching of content, concepts, and skills.  Learning expedition topics are based in either science or humanities, and sometimes integrate both disciplines.  Learning expeditions always integrate literacy.
  • Learning expedition topics are chosen on the basis of content/curriculum maps that reflect district and state requirements.  These maps are created in partnership with ELS.
  • Learning expeditions are planned and documented on LEO (ELS’ electronic planning templates) and include a variety of learning experiences, including projects leading to products.
  • Math is mostly taught as a stand-alone subject but is integrated into expeditions when it can further understanding of expedition content, provide a real context for application of mathematical concepts and skills, and deepen mathematical understanding.
  • At least three-quarters of literacy instruction (reading, writing, speaking, listening) is integrated within expeditions (science as well as humanities) and in all other content areas as well (e.g., math, art, etc.).  This allows a geometric increase in the instructional time devoted to literacy.  Comprehension or thinking strategies form the basis for reading instruction in all the disciplines, and are used to help students make sense of text, data, art, etc.
  • Teaching and learning are active: teachers create a need to know, invite metacognition and the social construction of meaning, develop a collaborative learning culture, and actively engage students in the assessment process.
  • Graduation requirements include four years of humanities (English and social studies), four years of science, four years of math, and two-to-three years of foreign language depending upon the university admission requirements of the state in which the school is located.  The core curriculum also includes art, service, PE, and adventure.
  • The intensity and rigor of these requirements, which lead to many more class hours than most district requirements, as well as the school’s small size, preclude offering the number and range of electives available in many traditional comprehensive high schools.  Electives– student voice and choice – come instead through intensives, project and product work, junior internships, and senior expeditions.
  • Intensity and rigor are also reflected in the extended school day and/or the calendar for the school year.
  • Intensives (between grading periods) are an essential component of both student choice and academic support. Intensives are courses lasting from five to eight days in which students are engaged in either an in-depth study of a topic or intensive academic support.  They are offered toward the end of each semester or between trimesters so that students failing one or more courses have the opportunity and support to complete their work.  Students passing all courses choose from a menu of elective intensives.
  • Other academic support systems are implemented throughout the school year to assure that all students meet learning targets and that no one falls between the cracks.
  • All students are prepared and advised for college or other post-secondary options.
  • Crews – teams of students and an adult advisor – meet daily to discuss academic, social, and behavioral issues, read and discuss literature, organize work for passage portfolios or culminating projects, and build a strong school culture.  Crew is a structure that assures that all students are known well and cared for.
  • Learning targets, closely aligned with standards, are the major way course requirements are set and communicated and credits earned. Learning targets also provide the basis for all assessments.Students receive both an academic and a character grade for each course and must make adequate progress in both areas to earn credit.
  • Students use evidence ofprogress towards meeting targets, collected in portfolios, as the basis for regularly scheduled student-led family and teacher conferences in which they lead a discussion of accomplishments, needs, and goals as learners.
  • Passage portfolios are presented to panels of parents, teachers, and community members at the end of the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades. Successful presentations are a requirement for entrance into the next grade and for graduation.

Structures Required for the Implementation of Program Essentials

  • Contained grade-level teams of five full-time core academic teachers that work with a class of 100 students.
  • Intensive summer professional development for new teachers, the instructional guide, and the principalthat includes a  five-day national high school institute, a five-day reading institute, a four-day writing institute, a two-day adventure/culture building retreat, and 15 days of on-site curriculum development and other activities required before school starts.
  • Returning teachers will participate in a 5-day reading-writing institute, in the 2-day retreat, and in the 15 days of on-site summer work.
  • Ongoing professional development occurs during the school year in weekly common team planning periods, on early release days, and on regularly scheduled professional development days.
  • An instructional guide who works with the ELS school designer supports teaching and learning on a daily basis.
  • The school calendar and schedule facilitate the implementation of essential program components.  The schedule and calendar must be completed before staff is hired and students recruited because together they both represent and provide the structures necessary for building an effective EL high school.