It's a brave kindergarten student who will step up to a microphone and address their school's 250 community members. This is a weekly occurrence at Sierra Expeditionary Learning School (SELS), where kindergarteners share this duty with fellow students, who range all the way up to 8th grade.
The Sierra Sun spoke with David Manahan, SELS's director, about the school's mission, the motivation behind these goals, and the practices he's been a part of implementing. There is much to be gleaned from the school, as SELS has the awards to prove they are about more than lofty aspirations. In 2017 the school was named a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon School for exemplary performance, and EL Education Network, the nonprofit that supports expeditionary learning schools, has granted SELS Mentor Status.
Schools like SELS are valuable reminders that as important as performance skills are, there are other essential components of a good education that shouldn't be forgotten.
"We believe that in this rapidly changing world, students' character and skills are vitally important to their development as a learner and helpful community member," explained Manahan. A school community that acknowledges this fact is likely to then perceive all the inherent opportunities they have to form character.
"Using numerous character and skills structures, SELS provides students endless opportunities to explore their thinking, reflect upon themselves and the world, work collaboratively with hands-on/minds-on projects, and provide service to their community," adds Manahan.
The structures through which SELS advances the character development of students are varied: there are the aforementioned community meetings, in which students take responsibility for leading the event; "rock ceremony," a ritual in which an "eighth-grader presents a rock from the local stream to a kindergartener, with an intention for their school career"; and a community garden that is cared for by school staff and students.
"The tactic is that if you spend time on the child's character and emotional well being, the academic skills will follow," reports the Sierra Sun. SELS is intent on developing good people as well as good students, and all signs point to the fact that they are making progress.
"Like any school, charter schools and the individuals who enliven their hallways are full of need. However, some of those needs are particularly pronounced in charters: The administrators and teachers need to raise test scores while educating their students in academic and character skills," writes Patricia Maloney in The Content of Their Character, which spotlights the findings of the School Cultures and Student Formation Project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.
The Sierra Sun reports that the focus on character first—which is part of the Expeditionary Learning (EL) model—is impacting academic performance, as demonstrated by the school's Blue Ribbon award.
Building a school culture that focuses first on a child's character begins by developing teachers. EL requires professional development opportunities for teachers that model and mirrors the kind of learning and character formation that they develop for students.