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The Kenosha Unified School District finds success with EL Education’s Three Tiers of Achievement

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    EL Education

The Kenosha Unified School District (KSUD) has cause to celebrate. Its students have the highest achievement scores among the state of Wisconsin’s five largest urban districts. Besides stellar students, it has talented, dedicated teachers and deep community support. Bill Haithcock, principal of the district’s Harborside Academy, recognizes that the school’s adoption of the EL Education approach has given the district a solid foundation for its success.

Haithcock recently wrote an op-ed in The Kenosha News about the KUSD’s experience being part of the national network of 160 EL Education schools. Below, we’ve included the extended version of his essay, which outlines how each of Kenosha’s EL Education schools adopted the model at different times and are at various stages of implementation.

The mission of the Kenosha Unified School District is “to provide excellent, challenging learning opportunities and experiences that prepare each student for success.” While it is true our district has challenges yet to overcome, we also have a lot to celebrate here in our home town. 

At the front of that list is the fact that we are the third largest district in the state of Wisconsin, yet we have the highest achievement scores amongst the five largest urban communities in the state. This is due to a myriad of factors and the efforts of A LOT of good people. I believe it is also partially due to strong city planning, the efforts of local clergy, a professional police department and social service workers that seemingly never give up on those in need. In Kenosha, we also have some pretty talented educational administrators leading the way for an incredibly hard working team of support staff and teachers. We also have parents and students that would make any community proud. Our community’s efforts to embrace these or similar ideals keeps KUSD’s mission alive.

Each school in our district is therefore entrusted with the challenge of working toward this mission. Bradford Practices Peace, a motto they created for themselves. Schools like K-TEC and Lakeview Tech have also followed their own vision to create exemplary schools. Roosevelt Elementary has chosen to use International Baccalaureate model to help them achieve National Blue Ribbon status! Each of these schools are part of the larger district, but they all have their own distinctive programs and that they utilize to create a sense of pride, hope and confidence within their student body and local neighborhoods.

Another educational approach that has grown in popularity here in Kenosha over the past several years is EL Education (formerly known as Expeditionary Learning). Harborside Academy, along with Frank, Wilson, Jane Vernon, and Jefferson Elementary Schools, are currently using this research-based approach as their strategic plan to make true on KUSD’s mission and promise. 

EL Education was started close to 30 years ago in the library of Harvard University by a group of dedicated educators who followed the guiding principles of Outward Bound and the original teachings of Kurt Hahn. Hahn, a German-born educator who was arrested during WWII for openly criticizing Hitler and the path his country was following during the war left Germany and started a school on the coast of Scotland that emphasized strong character development, hard work and experiential learning. A parent at his school applied the same principles to create Outward Bound. Now, those same basic principles remain alive and well within Kenosha’s EL schools.

As part of a network of 160 other EL Education schools all across the country, Kenosha’s EL schools are characterized by their unique focus on three tiers of achievement. Powerful learning and student achievement is still goal number one within EL schools. However, learning at EL schools is not only defined by test scores and grade point averages. EL schools also strive to develop positive student character and soft skills (such as kindness, responsibility and a strong work ethic). As an example, Harborside Academy students actually receive two report cards per class as they are given not only an academic grade, but also a character grade. The final tier of achievement within EL involves challenging students to create high-quality products and presentations. In the end, students in our local EL schools are striving to get smarter every day, developing positive character and learning to do the highest quality work possible.

Kenosha’s EL schools each adopted this model of instruction at different times and are therefore at various stages of implementation. Harborside, which opened in 2007 through a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant was the first of these schools to adopt the model. Within a few years, Harborside was chosen by the leadership of EL to be the Midwest secondary mentor school for the organization. This means that Harborside regularly hosts visiting educators from various places in the region, and around the globe. 

Just last year, Outward Bound Taiwan facilitated a program where I was able to travel overseas with a group of five tenth grade students. There we presented at seven different schools in China and Taiwan. The goal of the trip was to help these schools to see how Harborside is using highly engaging teaching methodology to increase student engagement and achievement. 

Whether you attend Harborside Academy, Frank Elementary, or any other school here in Kenosha, we believe that our district’s mission is alive and well. While not all schools go about getting there in the same way, we are all striving to be as effective as we can.

It is probably not the simplest time history to be an educator, but it is our time. Our local schools, EL or not, public or private, embrace the sincerity of the work that we face. I believe Kurt Hahn would be proud of our efforts.