Down East 2013 ©
Photo Credit: Courtesy King Middle School/David Grant
Maine schools have never been afraid to think outside the box — the state’s laptop program quickly became a model for other schools nationwide after it was implemented in 2002 — and in recent years educators have even been thinking outside the classroom whenever possible. When Casco Bay High School opened in 2005 it was the first so-called “expeditionary learning” secondary school in the state and made Portland the first city in the country to offer this type of hands-on curriculum from kindergarten right up through senior year.
Since then other states have looked to Maine for guidance as they seek to open their own expeditionary schools, which are affiliated with the Outward Bound program and are unique in their focus on original research and team-building, even in the earliest grades. President Barack Obama has singled out expeditionary learning as the type of education that Americans should support, going so far as to roll out his education platform at an expeditionary learning school in Colorado. In Maine, students have studied fisheries by working at the Portland Fish Exchange while reading The Old Man and the Sea, and examined the nature of work by evaluating Wal-Mart and designing robots.
“You start with an idea: How does alternative energy affect our lives and how do we have an effect on the environment, for instance,” explains Mike McCarthy, principal at King Middle School in Portland. “For that we’ve had kids out on a sailing boat, we’ve had Governor [and wind-power entrepreneur] Angus King here, and now the kids are making model windmills and we’ll have a competition next week to see whose generates the most electricity. We try to work with relevant, meaningful topics, and the kids try to approach things the same way professionals would.” McCarthy, who adopted the expeditionary model in 1992 after seeing the benefits of Outward Bound excursions on his teachers, has watched as his school went from being one of the worst-performing schools in Maine to one of the best, outscoring state and city averages on Maine Educational Assessment exams.
Today there are five public schools in Maine that are using the expeditionary model, in Bath, St. George, Thomaston, Woolwich, and Portland. “You have some of our best right there in Maine,” remarks Scott Hartl, director of research at Expeditionary Learning Schools Outward Bound, the Manhattan-based organization that teaches the participating schools how to implement the programs. “Schools in other cities actively looked at the Maine experience, and some of them even came to visit Maine.”
But Hartl admits expeditionary learning is not for everyone. Wiscasset, for instance, recently decided to drop the expeditionary learning model, though Hartl is quick to point out that the parting was an amicable one. “Expeditionary learning is a set of tools, a professional development engine, that has to match with how the community and leaders want the school to progress,” Hartl explains.
For some schools, though, expeditionary learning has proven to be a perfect fit. Grants are often arranged through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or a variety of other foundations, and Principal McCarthy says Outward Bound has proven flexible in determining a reasonable contract for its services.
Even though a student may only be twelve or thirteen years old, taking on a grown-up project and becoming a part of an “expedition” often proves to be a critical part of his or her academic and social growth. “The last chance a kid has to develop a social conscience is this age,” McCarthy says. “They like being treated like an adult. And when they produce work, it always goes public, so it has to be accurate, it has to be well-produced. Sometimes they’re doing eight or nine revisions to a piece of writing, so it really raises the quality of work.”