Madison Expeditionary Learning Academy offers new options for students

A new interdisciplinary high school is in the works for the Madison area. Madison Expeditionary Learning Academy (MELA) is hoping to open its doors in fall of 2013.

Curriculum at the Madison Expeditionary Learning Academy, Used with permissionCurriculum at the Madison Expeditionary Learning Academy, Used with permissionBeginning in spring of 2010, MELA’s non-profit organization completed over two years of research with the assistance of community members to identify what type of school was desired in the area. When taking into account nine characteristics that the public voted most important for a new school, such as a smaller size, college preparatory focus, and civic engagement and service, the organization decided that an expeditionary learning school was the best fit.

The school will be a STEM-Arts (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) based academy, with a solid framework of engagement for both teachers and students.

“Students have narrow ideas of what they like or are good at when they get to high school,"  said Michelle Sharpswain, MELA’s co-founder and non-profit president. "One of the biggest goals of expeditionary learning is to flip that idea and allow them to develop a broader, more integrated understanding of content areas.”

According to Sharpswain, the hope is for the Madison Expeditionary Learning Academy to eventually have a capacity of 380 students, a maximum of 80 per grade level.

For now, the academy plans for 36-40 students in the first school year, starting either fall of 2013 or 2014. Two full-time and a few part-time teachers, and at least one administrator would staff the school.

The location of MELA is still being determined. It will be an independent, private school, funded by tuition as well as corporate and private sources.

There have been five informational meetings for families wishing to ask questions and find out more about expeditionary learning schools and the Madison Expeditionary Learning Academy. The last meeting will be held Jan. 22 at the Middleton Public Library.

The most recent meeting, which was held at the Verona Public Library on Jan. 7, was hosted by Sharpswain and attracted parents from as far as Janesville. Many of the attendees, who are either unhappy with their children’s current schools or interested in alternatives to public schools, were attracted to what the expeditionary school has to offer.

One area that sets expeditionary learning schools apart from public district schools is the amount that students are engaged in fieldwork, community involvement, and service learning. One day per school week will be completely committed to these activities.

Most fieldwork will be related to what students are learning in classes, and much of it will be interconnected between subjects.

 Along with class and fieldwork, students will be committed to semester long projects to be presented to an audience of significance, such as local businesses and companies, with the end product being of professional quality. Some seniors will also be in charge of two capstone projects before graduating.

Besides service and out-of-classroom learning, MELA students will focus on eight core aspects of curriculum, which will be run in block style classes alongside teacher’s office hours, collaboration time, and a homeroom-style class. Subjects include English, science, social science, mathematics, fitness and wellness, world language, engineering and computer science, and art and design.

“One of the things that sets us apart from other expeditionary learning schools is really looking at what literacy is in the 21st century and making sure students understand the connections between [subjects]," Sharpswain said during the informational meeting in Verona. "For example, the literacy of science with math or design with engineering. The degree that a student understands where the impact comes from is where the depth of learning is.” 

There are a few other major hallmarks that are unique to MELA in comparison to expeditionary learning schools around the country, according to Sharpswain.

The first difference is Maker Space, which is an environment to empower self-directed learning through integrating interdisciplinary opportunities. These come in the form of design and engineering, by combining art studio and machine shop to allow students to make connections throughout their classes in a hands-on way. Maker Space will be similar to what the community workspace Sector 67 provides to the Madison area.

Health and fitness is the second aspect that sets MELA apart nationally. Students will be engaged in four years of both physical activity as well as mindfulness programs that promote health for life. This is very different from public schools in the state, which only require three semesters of fitness classes throughout the four years students are in school.

As a partner for enrichment for MELA, the non-profit organization created the Center for Engagement, which provides more educational opportunities for both students and teachers. MELA and the Center for Engagement offered weeklong summer camps in summer 2012 for students aged 10-17 and will offer more programs in the upcoming summer months.

This weekend kicks off the first Saturday Series winter enrichment program. Activities for children 10-12 years old will be offered, similar to the daily activities at the summer camps.  

“We use these programs and activities to integrate kids in interdisciplinary course work,” said Mark Sullivan from the Center for Engagement.

Although many members of the community are excited about an expeditionary learning school coming to Madison, not everyone is convinced.

Larry Iles, a math teacher at Madison West High School who attended the Jan. 7 meeting, believes it could be a good idea but is unsure where the resources for such ventures are going to come from.

"It all sounds very exciting, and for certain kids it would be a good fit, but I’d say there’s not enough details yet," said Iles. "My question is how they are going to be attracting quality teachers and have the funds for the lab and Space Maker equipment."

But with a national network of 165 expeditionary learning schools and over 18 years of data and research, Sharpswain is positive that expeditionary learning schools are and can be very successful.

"Instead of redesigning the wheel," she said, "we’re looking at a wheel that’s already in motion."