Expeditionary Learning Launches Its First NYC Charter

Presentations of Learning to parents and community members conclude the first school year of Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter School. The end of year presentations will make the case that the sixth graders are ready to move on to seventh grade.

The presentations are the third time students at Launch will be able to show what they know. Last fall students led conferences with their parents and teachers. This spring, students turned Launch into a museum with a giant Exhibition.

Launch is the eleventh Expeditionary Learning (EL) school in New York City but the first charter school. EL is a national school developer with a network of more than 150 schools that, according to their Core Practices, “challenges students to think critically and take active roles in their classrooms and communities, resulting in higher achievement and greater engagement in school.”

The 11 EL schools, representing all five boroughs, “do a lot of work together,” said Geoff Roehm, Launch Executive Director, with support from the Gates Foundation.  Each school has an Instructional Guide who works full time with classroom teachers. They also benefit from a regional school designer.

“I love starting my day with crew,” said a student we interviewed. Crew is a 30 minute advisory period that starts the EL day. It’s where they practice and talk about the shared Habits of Heart and Mind central to the Launch culture: accountability, craftsmanship, wonder, mindfulness, and compassion. The Habits are integrated into the culture and every learning experience at Launch.

Eighty of the 112 sixth graders came to Launch reading at the third grade or below. The rationale for a 6-12 school is that they have seven years to help students prepare for college and careers. The school is located in Crown Heights but most of the predominantly African American students come from Bedford-Stuyvesant. More than 30% have special needs.  Nearly all live in or near poverty.

Launch is co-located with a District 16 elementary. NYC has a mature system of school choice, but other than their neighbor downstairs, district schools don’t allow them to visit to inform fifth graders about the program.

The Launch curriculum is structured as a series of big schoolwide expeditions. The framework for the Food, Glorious Food unit was borrowed from the Queens EL school. Building Cities is a unit exploring urban politics, economy, and society. In Environmental Design & Craft (an applied art class) they studied and built bridges. Field work is commonly incorporated into expeditions and they promote deeper learning by making connections to the world.

The Crown Heights kids practiced “wonder” on a camping trip–a first for most of them. They practiced “craftsmanship” while building a boat. They practiced “mindfulness” when conducting a historical exploration of the neighborhood.

There are 80 MacBooks at Launch but I didn’t see much evidence of use. Next year they will add 90 Chromebooks–selected mainly based on price point–and a tech coach to improve use. Launch has a pretty good technology advocate on the board–Pearson’s Jonathan Harber is board chair. All the students use Google apps to submit assignments, ask questions and Roehm said his “inbox is full of student shared work.”

The EL network is working on blended learning for adults–kids after that. I often describe the ideal blend as School of One (NewClassrooms.org) meets Expeditionary Learning–customized playlists that prepare students for engaging projects and community-connected work (like the design of Summit Denali). Launch is off to a good start.  The 6-12 model has transformational potential for the kids of Bed-Stuy.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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