A Bend-La Pine magnet school has received a national credential acknowledging its place among schools successful in using the expeditionary learning model.

Expeditionary learning schools are characterized by their nontraditional approach in which projects and real-world learning are emphasized. Seventh-graders in a science class at REALMS are visiting a wetland restoration area, for example, and the Forest Service will look at the data they collect.

Since early 2015, REALMS, or Rimrock Expeditionary Alternative Learning Middle School, has been working on earning the credential from EL Education, an expeditionary learning nonprofit that encourages student achievement in three main areas: mastery of knowledge and skills, character and high-quality student work.

REALMS, with about 150 students, doesn’t center its curriculum around test scores, yet the sixth- through eighth-grade middle school generally yields test scores dramatically better than other, traditional schools.

And just as REALMS’ focus isn’t on test scores, the goal of earning the EL Education credential wasn’t just to get that label, according to REALMS Principal Roger White. The goal was to get the school to the levels of achievement the credential connotes.

“The credentialing process and building of this web-based portfolio wasn’t just done for the credential,” White said Friday. “It’s just a label … the process is really the most important part and it’s a process of our faculty examining our processes and figuring out what are we doing well, what are we successful at and what do we need to keep working on.”

Although there are about 150 schools in the EL Education network in the U.S., fewer than 30 have earned the EL Education credential, and REALMS is now among them.

Students’ lessons may often be hands-on or apply to the real world, and at REALMS, teachers don’t use textbooks.

“The nature of the way we do curriculum is completely different than anyone else. We design our own curriculum,” said Amy Anderson, program coordinator at REALMS.

Because the criteria for the credential include success to be measured in areas like student character that can’t be gauged with a test, REALMS staff had to come up with ways to show the growth of their students. Character was broken down to be measured in three ways: service, work habits and habits of community and character. In an online portfolio, REALMS shows ways it teaches its students to be aware not just of their math or reading skills, but also of their learning habits and mindsets. Students frequently check in, for example, by writing self-assessments during and after classroom assignments

Another part of encouraging character: service work for the school and community is included at all grade levels.

The online portfolio REALMS created to show its student achievement isn’t lists of test scores.

“We have been wrestling with the process of how do we access character, measure character growth, how do we report it …” White said. “It’s a mix of anecdotal evidence, student videos, student work and several quantitative measures that we use.”

Beyond student achievement in character though, the online portfolio also demonstrates student success in mastery of knowledge and skills and high-quality student work.

And although test scores are far from the focus at REALMS, one result of the expeditionary learning approach, according to White, is that test scores are good. They’re better than most other schools around the state.

REALMS students have outperformed their peers across the state by an average of 20 percentage points in English language arts and 12 percentage points in math on the state standardized tests over the past four years. Also during that time, students in poverty at REALMS bettered their peers by an even wider margin — 25 percentage points in language arts and 15 percentage points in math.

Jay Mathisen, deputy superintendent of Bend-La Pine Schools, said he thinks it’s “fantastic” REALMS earned the credential, although the district wasn’t involved. In that way, he said, the accomplishment is a “great example” of a principal leading a staff to its own achievement.

Mathisen said that although REALMS is different from other middle schools because it’s an expeditionary school, the opportunity for a principal to encourage its staff to meet new standards or goals is something the district is open to seeing in any of its schools.

“We’re attempting to provide more flexibility,” Mathisen said across Bend-La Pine Schools. Although traditional schools all follow the same standards, the district is encouraging principals to work with their teachers “to design” lesson plans that work best for students.

“Consistency across schools is important, but teachers and principals know their students the best at each school,” Mathisen said.

Although REALMS doesn’t want the focus to be on test scores, it allows itself to be compared with traditional schools.

“We’re just proud to show that this kind of education does work,” Anderson said. “A lot of people might just dismiss this kind of education that looks different … but it’s working well for our students.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0325,

kfisicaro@bendbulletin.com

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