Compositive: Hidden jewel – William Smith High School

Alan Gottlieb, Compositive Staff

The search for schools that embody at least some facets of whole-child education can occasionally find gold in the unlikeliest places.

William Smith High School in Aurora, Colo. Is one such place.

For many years, William Smith was considered the “last-chance” high school for Aurora Public Schools students who had disengaged at more traditional high school programs. Many students stopped in at Smith briefly en route to dropping out of school altogether.

Then, in 2004, district leadership and then-principal Jane Shirley decided that the school could offer a strong education to students who might not thrive in a traditional setting, without dumbing down the curriculum and patronizing adolescents. While the school staff once sent a not-so-subliminal message that students were likely to fail, the new Smith would find new ways to engage them in their learning.

To switch gears radically, Smith became an Expeditionary Learning school. Taken from the learning philosophy of Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn, EL schools teach students from day one that “we are crew, not passengers.” In other words, we all must own our learning, and actively contribute to it rather than expecting someone else to deliver it to us.

In the years since becoming an EL school, Smith has shed its “alternative school” stigma and now has a waiting list for admission. About 90 percent of the students who enter the school at ninth grade stay through to graduation. Some stay five years and get an associate’s degree at no cost from the Community College of Aurora.

 “The best learning happens if it is more authentic and relevant,” David Roll, Smith’s principal said. “And EL really helps integrate different components of learning so it hits the whole child.”

EL schools like Smith employ “expeditions” rather than classes as the unit of study. Expeditions are multi-disciplinary. Smith breaks up semesters into expeditions of eight weeks, then three weeks, then four weeks. Some are full-day, some half day.

In the spring semester of the 2016-17 school year, teachers were planning a beginning film studies project that would span four weeks of full days, entirely out of the school building. The class would meet downtown, and roam the streets gathering material and filming.

In the fall semester of 2016, for instance, some students joined an eight-week expedition for half each school day called “Bean to Bar.” It was all about chocolate.

While that might sound fluffy, the expedition addresses science, literacy, and social studies standards. For example: “I can gather, analyze, interpret data on chemical and physical properties of different compounds such as density, melting point, pH, and conductivity.”

The expedition also explores how demand for chocolate supports modern-day slavery, and how it has played key roles in literature for centuries.

The culminating project for each student is producing a unique chocolate bar. Students can choose to sell their chocolates as a fundraiser for a local nonprofit.

“Our educators are not content teachers but rather intellectual guides, who have strength in certain content areas,” Roll said.

As one might expect from a school modeled on the Outward Bound philosophy, getting students out of the building and into nature is a high priority at William Smith. All EL schools prioritize excursions, but it’s especially important at this school where, Principal Roll says “a surprising number of the students have never been very far west of I-25,” let alone into the mountains.

Getting an inner-city student roped up and on a sheer rock face has a way of focusing the attention. “The goal is to transfer the focus and concentration you see in a student on a rock face to the classroom,” Roll said.

The school eschews traditional physical education classes in favor of activities that promote lifelong fitness habits. Two to three times a week students go on structured walks, attend CrossFit classes, or enjoy group urban cycling.

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