Reopening: Moving Toward More Equitable Schools
Header image's Julie Christensen profiles Expeditionary Learning

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    Ben Smith

At the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens, New York, 6th graders are doing a study on food and nutrition. But forget your traditional textbook and lecture assignments—instead, these students took in still-life portraits of food at an art gallery, studied their school's cafeteria operations and even foraged onions and wild herbs with a local expert at a nearby park.

This hands-on, multi-sensory approach to learning is typical. "Students...interact with content in a very concrete, meaningful way focused on real-life learning and situations," says Damon McCord, co-director of the school.

"Students...interact with content in a very concrete, meaningful way focused on real-life learning and situations." Damon McCord Co-Director, Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School

Expeditionary Learning, or EL, schools are known for a progressive, active approach to learning, and the results are impressive. According to the EL website, students at these specialty schools score an average of 9.1 points higher in reading on standardized tests, and 4.5 points higher in math than traditional schools. Relations coordinator Sheila Jacobs reveals that the UrbanPromise school in Camden, New Jersey has a dropout rate of less than 1 percent and 90 percent of graduates go on to college—in an urban area with a 50 percent dropout rate.

Wondering if an Expeditionary Learning school is right for your young student? Here are some ways to find out more about this revolutionary teaching philosophy:

  • Think about your child’s learning style. Spend some time observing your child. What does he enjoy? Does he prefer to learn with visual aids, or listen to a lesson? Children who are kinesthetic learners, meaning they prefer to learn by using their hands and bodies over reading and listening, often excel in an EL environment.
  • Observe your child’s social interactions. EL schools encourage independent study, as well as project work in small and large groups. A collaborative mindset is one of the hallmarks of these schools. If your child is shy or prefers to work alone, he may struggle. But if he enjoys working in groups and social interactions with friends, he’ll likely thrive.
  • Visit a school. To find a school in your area, visit or the website for your local school district. Schedule a tour, spend time in the classrooms and talk to teachers to get a sense of the environment. Observing the teaching style, playground dynamics and interactions between kids and teachers will help you get a sense of what a day in the life of your kid would look like as an EL student.
  • Talk to other parents. Chatting with other moms and dads is one of the best ways to get a sense of the real strengths and weaknesses of any school. Asking several parents questions such as “Is your child challenged here?” or “How do the teachers treat the students?” will give you a feel for the level of satisfaction among parents and their little learners.
  • Read reviews. Check online sites for information, ratings and reviews on any school in your area. These sites offer independent ratings based on test scores and other criteria, but they also offer parent reviews. Don’t put too much weight in one negative review, but look for overall trends.
  • Weigh financial costs. Wondering if an Expeditionary education is in your budget? Every school is different, but most EL schools pay for fieldwork and special projects through grants and fundraising, making this approach highly affordable. Check with the school you’re considering to figure costs.
  • Consider your educational values. This project-based approach may seem unstructured to someone expecting a traditional, academic approach, but keep in mind that EL schools are subject to the same standards as any other school—they just use different teaching methods to reach their goals. EL schools do formal state and school assessments to check progress and students also assemble portfolios that document their work. However, if you’re set on a strict academic format, EL schools probably won’t be the best choice for you.
Gone are the days when every child walks five blocks to your neighborhood school. Modern parents can choose a school suited to their kid’s specific needs. When you walk in a school, you’ll probably have first impressions. No one knows your child better than you do, and if you sense that your child will be happy and thrive in an EL environment, chances are, you’re probably right.Expeditionary Learning schools offer an innovative model of learning that based on the fundamental belief that children learn best through doing—which, if you’re raising a hands-on learner, may be the perfect fit.