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President Obama Recognizes Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School

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    April Hattori


WHEELS Principal Brett Kimmel and senior Estiven Rodriguez at The White House

A senior class tradition that started at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) in New York City in 2011 rose to the national stage last week with recognition from President Barack Obama.

During the annual WHEELS tradition, all seniors march to the local post office and ceremoniously deposit their college applications in the mail.  WHEELS graduating classes have a 100% college acceptance rate and the trend is expected to continue this year. Commenting on WHEELS’ College March in his speech on college readiness, President Obama noted: “You would have thought it was the Macy’s parade. But the crowds on the sidewalk were parents, and teachers, and neighbors. The flags were college pennants.”

Obama commended the accomplishments of WHEELS senior Estiven Rodriguez, who could not speak English when he moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic at the age of nine.  Today, he is on his way to Dickinson College on a competitive scholarship.

“Today, with the support of a tightly knit school community, he’s one of the top students in his senior class at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School,” Obama said.  “We all have a stake in restoring that fundamental American idea that says, ‘it doesn’t matter where you start; what matters is where you end up.’ And as parents, and as teachers, and as philanthropic leaders, and as citizens, we’ve all got a role to play."

See the two-minute clip of President Obama here. 

Conceived by Assistant Principal of College Readiness Jenny Rodriguez, WHEELS’ College March tradition began in 2011 and in 2012 expanded to NYC Outward Bound Schools, (which operates New York City's network of Expeditionary Learning schools).  It expanded to the Expeditionary Learning network in November and December and included several Mentor Schools – Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.; Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine; Harborside Academy in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts. 

Events at each location took on a local flavor and received significant media coverage.  See examples of stories in the Community News section of the website.

“The concept for the College March is to shine a spotlight on our students and to show what is possible,” said Brett Kimmel, principal at WHEELS. “We are proud of not only the WHEELS Class of 2014 but of all of the seniors in the Expeditionary Learning network who have taken the literal and figurative next steps toward academic success.”

Casco Bay High School’s College March featured the city’s mayor who addressed the seniors and a surprise crowd of cheering underclassmen.

“The March to the Post Office was unforgettable and super fun. It both made visible and reinforced our school values - to uphold high aspirations for each student and to forge a community of deeply caring adults and peers that urges each along on the journey,” Principal Derek Pierce said.

At Harborside Academy, Principal Bill Haithcock noted that the most powerful moments of its College March were towards the end of the event when senior Brionna addressed her classmates and when many of the seniors got emotional as they read letters from their parents.

Harborside added its own touch to its College March day. The documents students carried were as varied as their accomplishments and goals. They included transcripts, letters of recommendation, passing scores on AP test scores, letters to parents, letters to themselves that they could open before graduation, letters to a military recruiting office, and letters to express interest in an apprenticeship program.

“I headed into this expecting it to be a great experience for the seniors. During the event, I was struck by the incredible impact it had on our middle school kids. I would be so happy if only half of them went home and discussed with their parents that night, “What will be in my envelope when I am that age?” I suspect that more than half of them had just that conversation,” Haithcock said.

Springfield Renaissance Principal Stephen Mahoney seconded the power of the College March beyond the senior class.

“Our first Walk to the Post Office was the start of a great tradition for our school and, even more importantly, one of those milestone moments for our students.  For the seniors it was a joyful celebration of their work thus far and the magnificent potential they hold in their hands.  For our freshmen it was a visceral reminder of our school’s mission and the personal relevance of the work that awaits them.  As a teacher and a principal, it reaffirmed all the best parts of being an educator, especially the opportunity to change the course of a young person’s life, “ Mahoney said. 

In 2014, the Expeditionary Learning network will participate in College March Day on December 12th, which will feature all schools that participated in the 2013 event and more. If your school would like to participate in the national movement, please send your name, school name, and email address to Patty Mengel, pmengel@elschools.org.