Learning expeditions at Two Rivers Public Charter School
What does a successful school look like? We can all agree on some qualities that good schools need, as well as various models of success. At DC Action for Children, we think of schools as parts of neighborhoods. Like the communities that surround them, each one has unique assets, needs and visions for success. Paying attention to these aspects can yield a promising school — or neighborhood initiative. While visiting Two Rivers Public Charter School, I caught a glimpse of one model of success that pairs a vision with needs and assets.
At Two Rivers, right around the corner from the New York Ave metro station, students from preschool through eighth grade embark upon two expeditions each year. Their teachers guide them in a project-based learning experience that incorporates science or social studies learning standards, and challenges students to interact with the curriculum in non-traditional and exciting way. Founded by parents who want their children to grow up to be good citizens and prepared for “21st century skills,” Two Rivers emphasizes collaboration and applying skills to real-life problems. My colleague Tulli Dobler and I visited Two Rivers during a recent First Fridays event, where we witnessed these expeditions in action and heard about them from students, teachers and school leaders.
Second-graders were learning about the physics of flight by exploring gravity and making recommendations to the Smithsonian National Air and Space museum for a child-friendly exhibit. Fifth-graders were learning about American history by studying protests and drafting recommendations for the D.C. public charter school community in response to funding concerns.
I reflected on my own foray into expeditionary learning, when I taught lessons about the Jamestown settlement to my eager fourth grade class. Each student selected a character — a real person who had lived in Jamestown — and took on that role as we learned about the difficulties the settlers faced. My students loved that unit and retained the information, but what a lot of work it was! As I learned more about Two Rivers, my appreciation for this approach grew and grew. Teaching that way is hard work, requiring careful planning, thoughtful collaboration and energetic motivation in the classroom. Amid preparing for standardized tests each spring, time for experiential learning can be hard to come by.
Of course, the school isn’t all about expeditions and projects. In many ways, Two Rivers looked much like any other school; I saw middle school students concentrating on math problems and kindergarteners working on their reading skills. Students there score higher than average on DC CAS tests, with 78% of elementary students proficient in reading and 67% proficient in math, but the school is still working toward improvement. They have seen slight but steady gains over the past several years.
Over the past few months my DC Action colleagues and I have attended several First Fridays tours. During each one, we’ve been wowed by engaged and high-performing students and teachers. We have also taken note of the differences among the schools, which show the endless possibilities for what a successful school looks like. Not every school looks the same, in much the same way that not every neighborhood is the same. What works or is needed in one school or neighborhood might not be the same in another. It seems that paying attention to what is needed for that particular school is what has made these public charter schools successful, which may be an important lesson for neighborhood interventions.