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The Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Forest Hills is off to a great start

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    Ben Smith

Matthew Hampton profiles all that is going right at this new EL school in Queens

A rendering of the finished school by the School Construction Authority.

A rendering of the finished school by the School Construction Authority. Credit Matthew Hampton

The Expeditionary Learning School has a mural of Queens painted by Paula Scher in its atrium. Credit Matthew Hampton

Abigail Sewall's fourth floor science class. Credit Matthew Hampton

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Credit Matthew Hampton

Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, one of three new schools on Forest Hills' Metropolitan Educational Campus, has only been open for two weeks, and so far, it's been an adventure.

But that's by design. Everything about the school is a departure from the way New York City students have learned in the past. The school is blazing a trail, leaving its own markers and the staff is confident that Forest Hills — and the rest of New York City, will follow where they lead.

Patrick Finley and Damon McCord, co-directors and principals, started the school in partnership with NYC Outward Bound, and the educational system takes on the attitude that learning is a shared journey, with every student playing their own role in the school's larger ecosystem.

"Our curriculum is organized into expeditions, so that the learning revolves around a topic or an idea for students," Finley said. "It's interesting, it's compelling, it really drives student learning. Students do field work and they speak with experts to go deeply into the material."

As an example, Finley added, instead of opening a book and learning about rivers, students will talk to a local expert on whether or not the East River is "sustainable and useful."

Sustainability is the school's watchword. The curriculum is designed around an ethos of environmental and societal responsibility, McCord said.

"Our mission is to have students thinking about how they have an impact on the world," McCord said. "It's really good for kids to grapple with those issues."

Students also have the opportunity to take backpacking trips and join friends at hands-on field trips in the area.

McCord said that so far, both students and parents have been thrilled with the experience.

"Overall the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, if you look at our Facebook page there are students and parents just really happy with the way things are going," he said. "We put a lot of emphasis on really establishing the culture for the first part of the school year."

For its first year, the school has two classes, 6th and 7th grade, for a total of 225 students led by a staff of 17 teachers. The school will add one grade level a year until 2016, with each grade averaging around 100 students.

A quick glance around the halls — at the staff and students — reveals a school that relishes its unique attitude. The environment is infectiously fun, while still giving every subject — from science to language arts — the appropriate weight.

Finley and McCord both credit the staff for the speed with which students have taken to the program. Science teacher Abigal Sewall said the key is making sure everyone works together.

"Our first expedition is called "Me to We," and every single class comes into it from a different lens, and the lens that we're coming into it from for science is our human footprint, and our ecological footprints," Sewall said.

Sewall's class, for example, spent a session making paper to introduce students to the idea that something they use every day in classroom activities has its own impact on the world around them.

"I think they've taken to it really well, it's something that's really new for all of us," she said. "As students engage with it, they really enjoy the depth that expeditionary learning brings with it. Students take so much ownership of what they do and how they're learning."