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Local small schools are thinking big

October 4, 2012

Big Pine’s fifth, sixth and seventh graders begin the groundwork for their first Expedition. Photo submitted

School districts with larger enrollments talk about the economies of scale: more course offerings, a larger athletic program, more bargaining/purchasing power. But, Owens Valley’s two smallest K-12 districts, Independence’s Owens Valley Unified and Big Pine Unified, are turning their lack of size into an advantage.
Owens Valley is in its second year with an academy structure at the high school level. This year, Big Pine is introducing the first steps of Expeditionary Learning that Superintendent Pamela Jones describes as a “structure, or transformational model, that supports teaching and learning.”
Both districts faced a similar situation: competition among four distinct school districts for a finite number of students with the goal of maintaining K-12 schools valued by their communities.
Owens Valley’s high school faced lapsation during the 2010-11 school year, the equivalent of a business going under, due to an enrollment hovering on the edge of extinction. The magic number was an Average Daily Attendance of 11, not the enrollment figure but the number of students in attendance per day averaged over the school year. As of this school year, the high school enrollment stands at a safe 24.
“We had to be innovative,” said Superintendent Joel Hampton. “We had to stay on the cutting edge. The economy of size doesn’t work here.” The more conventional definition of an academy implies a concentration on a field of study, like science or the arts, and wrapping the general course work around those subjects. The district’s approach is to individualize course work to the student’s specific goals and, in the process, broaden those goals.
With the help of online courses, college bound juniors and seniors can acquire college credits while still in high school or choose to graduate in three years. “Students attend a regular classroom setting for their core curriculum classes,” said Hampton. “We have some students that have come to us from other schools who may need a core class we’re not offering in a given year. Those students are provided an online class or the subject teacher may do an independent study class tailored just for that student. Students working toward an accelerated graduation usually take some core classes online in order to increase credits.” There is no one set pattern, the students’ have their own goals and customized education plans that work to that end.
The focus at the Owens Valley academy is what lies beyond the campus as well as the Whites and Sierra mountains. Starting in junior high school, students are challenged to focus on life after 12th grade. A natural question, said Hampton, “is ‘why are we in high school?’ We tell them they have to be something when they get through. So, we ask them, ‘What are you looking for? What are you prepared to do?’ That idea keeps them focused.”
As for grades, D’s are not an option at the academy. “We’re telling kids that barely getting by is okay,” said Hampton. “That’s not the way it works in the real world.” Exposure to that real world is an integral part of the academy. The goal is for each student to continue their learning, either at a community or four-year college or trade school, then bring those new skills back to the valley.
One key to Big Pine schools’ Expeditionary Learning is critical thinking. “Critical thinking takes time,” said Jones. “EL allows us to take the time without excluding any academic content.” Example: everyone remembers that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. That’s a memorized fact. With the EL system, students will be encouraged to ask why. What was the culture in Europe that encouraged exploration? How were the boats built and equipped for a trip of unknown duration? What was the political climate? What does it mean to discover a land where people are already living? It is in those questions that students really learn. Teachers talk less; students talk and think more.
According to Jones, she figured out five years ago that Big Pine needed to create a choice for education in the area to “maintain or increase enrollment and provide quality education. EL was a proven model with a network of high performing schools … We were looking for something that would promote a sense of adventure and follow the interests of the students.”
While Hampton can explain what his academy system looks like in the classroom, Jones is just starting to see the effects. “There’s flexibility built into the model. EL is a framework around the traditional curriculum … It organizes learning around an experiential, project-based approach. EL schools don’t all look alike. We’ll continue to be a comprehensive school district with a focus on reading, writing, math and all the academic subjects as well as music, arts, foreign language, technology and athletics. We’ll keep what works and we’ll adapt and change as we go along.”
The EL elements in place for this school year are Crew and learning targets (the goal of learning the main ideas in each class). Crew is a nautical reference to those propelling the ship, as opposed to passengers along for the ride. Crew is a scheduled 30-minute period for K-12. The focuses of Crew, said Jones, are “team building, habits of scholarship, problem solving, literacy, wellness and character building,” all central to preparing students for today’s workplace. The latter three, literacy, wellness and character building, are required by the Ed Code. The first three are career readiness skills in California’s Common Core Standards. The EL structure provides a consistent and effective place in the daily schedule for those elements to be addressed.
In keeping with the idea of learning as an adventure, Jones explained that EL schools can have up to four Expeditions during a school year. “The Expeditions deal with big ideas, pursue big questions,” she said. The projects have to meet high standards; “they’re not simply displays for parents’ night,” said Jones. The finished projects are prepared for what Jones describes as a “high-quality audience”.
Fifth and sixth graders are laying the groundwork for their first Expedition, a garden project in collaboration with a seventh grade science class. “Just planting seeds together doesn’t make the activity an EL activity,” said Jones. “It is the various components in combination: learning targets, methods, cooperative learning that makes the activity blossom into something different.”
Involvement with the EL Network wasn’t easy for Big Pine. “We had to go through their process and meet the criteria for acceptance into the national network,” Jones said. “We’re an isolated, small rural school district and had some barriers to overcome. EL’s concern was stretching its resources to support Big Pine.”
Two high school and three K-8 teachers attended a five-day EL institute this past summer. During the 2011-12 school year, teachers visited other EL schools. The new assistant principal, Katie Kolker, prepared for the school year at the Expeditionary Learning northeast region center in Amherst, Mass., in an administration immersion program. By June, 2013, every teacher in the district will have attended a training, conference or school visit. In addition, Big Pine has contracted for 12 days of an EL School Designer for onsite support each year. Internally, an EL leadership team is in place at the district to plan in-house staff training and the staff shares learning experience at each district staff meeting. EL also provides resources, lesson plans, work samples and ideas.
“We want a student body that wants to be here,” said Jones. “We also want students to graduate with the skills and attributes to be contributing citizens. We need to be good, to be attractive and establish the school as a choice. We’re on that road.”

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