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School wants ‘expedition’ status

Scott N. Miller
Shane Macomber/Vail DailyStudents at Minturn Middle School work in small groups. Administrators and parents are interested in changing the schools dynamic.
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MINTURN – Imagine a seventh grade class project that, instead of term papers, creates a book.That’s the idea behind a drive to introduce “expeditionary learning” to Minturn Middle School, perhaps as soon as next year.Parents and school administrators hope the change – which has both school officials and in-the-know parents itching to start – will reverse sagging enrollment at the school, which is now at less than half its capacity.So what is “expeditionary learning?” In short, it’s tackling academics through projects instead of individual lessons. That’s where the idea of creating a book comes in.”It’s about creating a real product with real meaning,” teacher Simon Hayes said. “It may mean getting into the community for a project about history, then producing a book that’s printed, published and sold.”Through the project, kids are still expected to hit their academic goals.”This is rigorous academically,” Principal Toni Bousch said.And, at least in some cases, the system works.

Some state test scores have jumped at Red Canyon High School, the Eagle County School District’s “alternative” high school. Red Canyon began using expeditionary learning this past school year.’A different approach'”It’s fantastic,” said Red Canyon Principal Wade Hill. “It’s really a different approach to education. Instead of saying ‘Now it’s comma week,’ this is centered around a compelling topic.”Red Canyon students, for example, spent several weeks studying the 1960s and the Vietnam War.Getting into topics instead of going over them strikes a couple of parents as a dandy idea, especially if it can draw students to Minturn.”If we can bring in a new initiative, maybe the school will stick out more,” parent Sally Ann Bluhm said.At the moment, though, Minturn is struggling. One of the main problems is the student population, which now hovers around 170. That has kids sort of rattling around in a school built to hold 400-plus. The biggest problem, though, is that by the district’s funding formula, schools need about 300 kids to be considered fully functional. That means Minturn is losing out.

There are no music programs this year, and there are no Spanish classes. Shop classes are limited to seventh and eighth graders only. And things aren’t getting better any time soon. While the school district plans to create 19 new teaching jobs for the next school year, Minturn will lose another teacher in 2005-06. That won’t change without more students.”Toni and the staff know they need to do something,” said Kate Cocchiarella, who has a son in fourth grade at Vail’s Red Sandstone Elementary and a daughter in pre-school. She wants both her kids to have the chance to take expeditionary learning courses at Minturn when they get a bit older, she said. Cocchiarella first found out about expeditionary learning during a visit to Red Canyon. “I was very impressed with the staff and what the kids were doing,” she said. “I think all schools should be expeditionary learning if possible.”The money questionBut turning Minturn into an expeditionary learning school will take more than just the desire. Specifically, it will take money, about $50,000 per year for five years.That will cover training and materials, Bousch said. It will buy time from consultants who will help pick the first “expeditions” and help teachers understand how all of a school’s subjects can tie into one project.

Bluhm recently talked to the Eagle County School Board about expeditionary learning. Board members sounded interested, but, when faced with a $250,000 bill over five years, asked her and other supporters to try to raise some private money to help out. That’s what Bluhm, Bousch and other supporters are now doing. They’ve had flyers about the program printed and are talking to parents, business owners and others in and around Minturn. But with or without private money, Bousch is determined to move ahead. “It’s kind of a piecemeal approach for us now,” she said.But the momentum seems to be building. And at least some students sound excited about learning expeditions, too. “I had one of my sixth graders tell me, ‘I want to live the subjects, not just read about them,'” Hayes said.And for middle schoolers, a group with a reputation of being hard to keep focused, expeditionary learning might be another way to channel the energy of young adolescents.”I think it’s especially important for middle schoolers,” Cocchiarella said. “It’s important to instill the notion that what you’re learning has real-world applications. We can expand that into community service, too.”But first, the expedition has to take its first steps.Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 613, or smiller@vaildaily.com.


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