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January 18, 2021
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Rigor and challenge – Expeditionary learning

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
January 15, 2021

Did you know that the Cotati Rohnert Park Unified School District has a magnet program at Lawrence Jones Middle School called “Expeditionary Learning (ExL)?” I thought I did. They do take the kids on a variety of expeditions and the learning is project-based, cooperative and requires parental involvement. Unfortunately, I also had some misconceptions about the program. I got to rectify that in the last couple of weeks doing interviews with ExL teachers and with Julia Benedetti, who has a child attending. She is also a board member of the parents’ association. 

The program has been around for twenty-five years. Current teacher Tim Coshow and a former colleague pitched the idea of a project-based learning environment to their principal back in 1994. With her support and that of the district’s superintendent, they designed the initial program for rollout in the 1995-96 school year at the former Mountain Shadows Middle School. That first year, over 60 students put their design to the test for seventh and eighth grade. The following year a sixth-grade class was added. The program has flourished, growing from two teachers with sixty-plus students to six teachers and 180-plus students today. The program also moved to Lawrence Jones in 2010 during the closure of Mountain Shadows. About 12 percent of students accepted into the program come from out of the district.

If you have a middle-school-aged child, especially a current fifth grader, this article can’t possibly cover all you need to know about ExL. If you’re considering whether your child should apply, I encourage you and your child to attend one of their two upcoming Info Nights. They will be held online on Tuesday, January 26 and Wednesday, February 3 at 6:30 p.m. You must register to attend, and you can do so at https://www.exlpa.org/. A zoom link will be sent once registered. ExL teachers and students will also be making presentations to fifth grade classes in the district during the next two weeks.

Certain themes came out during my interviews. The most striking was this three-year program is more than a program. It’s a community within a community. The students, because of their shared experiences, create long lasting bonds with classmates. The parents do too. Many continue to participate in supporting the program even after their children have moved on. Through an active Parents’ Association, fund raising events, or as volunteers for the various expeditions the kids go on. Teacher Peter Menth acknowledged the importance of parents and volunteers. He said, “without them, it wouldn’t work.”

Another theme evident was the passion for this program demonstrated by the teachers. Some have been with the program from the very start. Others for 10 or 15 years. They believe in, and model, the tenets of the program which are that Exl is “a place to explore, learn, connect and act – in and beyond the classroom.” They spend many extra hours of their own time, without monetary compensation and away from their families. When you’re on a field trip to Yosemite, Catalina Island, Monterey, camping at Lassen Volcanic Park, China Camp or Sugarloaf Ridge; or attending the Oregon Shakespeare festival, their teaching duties extend well beyond normal classroom hours. Yet as teacher Susan Holve Hensill said, they feel “really lucky.” Their students are special kids, who want to do something different. She stressed that it’s important the kids want to do this. Because while expeditions can be fun, they must put a lot of work into combining their “interdisciplinary academics with frequent expeditions into the world outside the classroom.”

What kind of student is fit for the program? “Willingness” was a key ingredient for teacher Cal Nelson. The willingness of the student to apply themselves, willing to learn from failure, when things don’t work out right, is willing to push themselves and have fun.” Most students who start the program stay with the program. They do occasionally lose a student, either because they moved or found the program didn’t fit them. Yet for Benedetti, the program did fit her oldest son. Interested in natural sciences he was “kind of bored with traditional school.” Described as an “absent minded professor,” ExL “forced him to be present and organized, able to speak in front of people” through its science and project-based learning.

There is a cost, in time and money, to families in this program. It starts with an application process which includes obtaining a teacher’s recommendation, short essays, and a commitment of parental involvement for fundraising, chaperoning, transportation, and other types of volunteer work. Although the school district pays for teacher salaries, benefits, and classroom outfitting; expedition costs and other materials for the program are funded by family contributions and supplemented through fundraising. However, Coshow said they are “making sure everybody can participate regardless of financial situation.” They do have a scholarship program available. 

All of this and more will be covered during the Virtual Info Night. Applications for the 2021-22 school year are now available and will be accepted February 1 through February 26.