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Outward Bound Leaps From Climbing Walls Into Schools

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That performance is key, say experts. A catchy-sounding curriculum is fine. But schools need strong basic academics too, says Theodore Sizer, education professor emeritus of Brown University in Providence, R.I. "The success depends on the particulars," he says. "We confuse serious education with models, and models are ... just the shell. It's what you do inside the shell that's crucial."

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Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound acts as a consultant to its schools, and has branch offices around the country. Teachers and administrators follow guidelines and consult with a school "designer," who visits regularly. The first-year cost for a school with 25 teachers is approximately $78,350.

Students aren't the only ones that test new methods. Teachers go on one-week learning expedition summits where they, like students, study themes in depth.

The five-year-old educational design tends to suit small high schools but has been successful with lower grades as well - public or private. While students of all ability levels are suited for the program, Mr. Farrell says, the approach may work best for those who have had problems learning in traditional schools.

Here at the King school, 22 percent of students are foreign born and speak a total of 28 languages. Many come from low-income backgrounds. As a traditional school 5-1/2 years ago, King had its share of problems, says principal Mike McCarthy.

"When I first got here, it was a typical junior high school - a lot of discipline problems, not a lot of interdisciplinary work," Mr. McCarthy says.

After Expeditionary Learning was introduced, students became more engaged, test scores have improved, and disciplinary referrals dropped, he says.

Students get a dollop of several academic subjects. For their Medieval Knights program, youngsters wrote reports on medieval characters in addition to putting on a play.

When they published a field guide of Casco Bay in an earlier expedition, students used science, art, research, writing, and computer skills. Youngsters did extensive on-site and laboratory work on organisms, as well as underwater photography and snorkeling. Shortly after that, an oil spill fouled Casco Bay.

"It then became real to the kids," McCarthy says. As part of their follow-up field work, "they saw animals drenched in oil and talked to the cleanup crew."

More demands on teachers

Despite its successes, expeditionary learning is not without its challenges. Teachers may find they have less free time - whether it's because they're buying art supplies or shopping for costumes.

"It's a lot of work. You have to do a lot of scrambling to put resources together," says language-arts teacher Karen MacDonald.

But students seem to appreciate that. Seventh-grader Krista Robinson likes the school better than others she's attended.

"When I was younger, I went to a parochial school then I went to a public school," she says. "The biggest change of all would be the freedom we have here. They trust you a lot more with learning. It's more hands on. It's more involvement with the whole class."