EL charter school opening to serve at-risk students

This fall, a new school is opening in Elgin, IL, and it will seek to differentiate itself by implementing a model that incorporates social consciousness and character development. This model is known as Expeditionary Learning (EL), and it was what attracted the new principal, Lezlie Fuhr, to take the new role.

The Daily Herald reported on Fuhr’s hiring and background as part of their coverage surrounding Elgin Math and Science Academy’s opening. The school has been approved to serve 200 students in kindergarten to 3rd grade beginning in August of this year.

Fuhr is a longtime educator, 22 years, who has worked in both the classroom and in administration. She’ll be moving her family almost 4 hours to Elgin in a display of commitment to the school’s mission.

Fuhr was attracted to Elgin not only because of the opportunity to a grow a school from the ground up. She said she, “[R]ead the (EMSA) charter proposal and was so inspired by what they were trying to accomplish and wanted to be a part of that.”

She was particularly attracted to the EL model that sits at the core of the school’s plan. The model creates space in the school day to focus on topics like social consciousness and character development. In her eyes, “It really makes learning meaningful.”

Fuhr added that: “I really want math and science to come to life in this school. We want (students) to be those problem-solvers, critical thinkers.” EL is an attractive option for those seeking opportunities in which students can apply their academic learning to the service of others. Educators are getting on board, as are parents.

Eighty families have already registered for the school’s entrance lottery, which will be held in April. The goal is to have 300 families, representing 500 students, registered by that time. In the meantime, Fuhr will continue to build out her leadership team so that she’ll be poised at the doors of an innovative and culture-focused school in August.

Researchers, too, are drawn to schools like this one, because they can afford ” insights into the impact of school organizational culture on opportunities for moral and civic formation of youth.” These kinds of schools “offer an environment of strong aims and school community, countercultural norms and values, and rituals and practices that offer a unique context for moral and civic socialization of youth” writes Notre Dame sociologist David Sikkink in The Content of Their Character, an upcoming book from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

One of the defining marks of an EL school is service and compassion. Their motto, “We are crew, not passengers,” is embodied in “acts of consequential service to others.”

For the Elgin families applying for a spot at the Math and Science Academy, this unique culture of service and compassion will certainly be appealing.

Families may also be motivated by the academic results. Ida Jew Academies in San José, California—a public charter school that serves a similar demographic of students—saw dramatic improvements in reading proficiency among English Language Learners (+26%) and students eligible for free or reduced-price meals (+21%). In EL Schools, service to others catalyzes learning. Educators look for more information on EL Schools can find case studies and research on their website.

EL Schools leave their mark on students

Inspired by the hit musical, Hamilton, 5th-graders at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC. spent weeks researching colonial history and composing rap songs to explain what they learned about the period. In their EL School, this is how deep learning happens, and the projects leave a mark on students beyond just the content that is absorbed.

EL Education is a New York-based nonprofit that supports 165 schools in 30 states to implement EL’s model. Kate Stringer, writing for The 74, reported on EL’s model, which is grounded in “content, character, and craftsmanship.” EL Schools weave these three Cs throughout all of their students’ learning.

The Hamilton-inspired project, and others like it, are known as “expeditions.” Stringer explains that expeditions are processes, “of inquiry, discovery, and creativity . . . [and that] teachers and leaders say this form of whole-child, project-based learning is the key to the network’s success across geographies and socioeconomic backgrounds, reaching more than 50,000 students last year, and 1 million in its history.

Expeditions provide a singular opportunity for character formation. Stringer says of the projects, “[I]t’s not enough to simply learn about a subject and create a project. EL students are expected to give back to the communities they learn from, so many of the projects are designed as lessons that students can use to share their newfound knowledge.”

In this way the students begin to see how character is a concept that permeates their life. It has an impact not only on their academic work and success but also in the ways that they treat others and contribute to their community.

Ron Berger, chief academic officer of EL Education says, “Once a child finishes her schooling and enters her adult life . . . for the rest of her life she will not be judged by test scores. She will be judged by the quality of work that she does and the quality of person that she is”

In a presentation at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, David Brooks argued that some people find balance in their life through living in “dense organizations . . . some schools are thick and they do leave a mark.”

Dr. Ashley Berner of the Johns Hopkins School of Education delves into school culture in Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School, “A strong school culture means something very different from a friendly school, or a high-achieving school, or a school with few discipline problems. Rather, it means a school where the moral vocabulary, rituals, discipline, academic expectations, and relationships align. Such a school can define its mission, hire faculty, and attract students and parents based upon a shared vision.”

EL Schools provide this coherence through their learning expeditions. Students know that they will be judged by the quality of their work, the depth of their knowledge, and their content of their character. This school culture makes all the difference.

Becoming an EL School is a slow process—often taking four to five years—because culture changes take time. But thick cultures leave their mark and can have an impact on students through their life.