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Forest Hills School Favors Hands-On Experience Over Textbooks and Tests

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska | October 16, 2016 6:29pm
 Damon McCord is a co-principal at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School.
Damon McCord is a co-principal at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School.
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DNAinfo/Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska

QUEENS — There is nothing conventional about the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, also known as MELS.

Known as “A School for a Sustainable City,” MELS doesn’t pay too much attention to tests and textbooks. Instead, the sixth through 12th grade school follows a curriculum based on hands-on learning and fieldwork.

The brainchild of two co-principals, Damon McCord and Pat Finley, MELS is a New York City Outward Bound School, implementing the expeditionary learning model, focused on getting students out of the classroom so that they learn through outdoor expeditions with experts in various fields.  

“You won’t see kids lugging around giant textbooks and test prep material because in our experience a test never really prepared anyone for their job,” McCord said.

MELS, which opened in September 2010 at 91-30 Metropolitan Ave., is an unscreened school, where test scores, grades and recommendation letters are not taken into account during the admission process. All students who live in District 28, which includes schools in Forest Hills, Rego Park, Kew Gardens, Briarwood as well as a portion of Jamaica and South Jamaica, are eligible to attend the school.

The innovative approach seems to have worked as the school's first-ever senior class last year had a 100 percent graduation rate and a 98 percent college acceptance rate.

DNAinfo New York talked to McCord about the benefits of dual principals, what it means to follow the expeditionary learning model and how to keep students engaged.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you come up with the idea for MELS?

The school was originally going to be focused on environmental action, but the idea of sustainability came up [during our discussions] and seemed to be the right lens to get kids to think more critically about the world.

We never bought into the hype around the tests so when we were designing the school we wanted to place an emphasis on the whole child and make sure that we weren’t sacrificing music, art, physical education, social studies and science to do double blocks of math and ELA to prep for a test — because I don’t think that in a long term that’s what’s best for kids. It might get the school a bump in their numbers, but it is not going to instill love of learning in a kid.

What do you want your students to learn?

We want students to recognize the impact of their actions and leave high school ready to be change-makers in the world. We are trying to get kids to think deeply about the world of which they are part and address some of the injustices that are happening. We want them to tackle things like climate change and to look out for the rights of other people. And we want them to be a little bit more thoughtful about the world rather than just try to gain as much as they possibly can for themselves.

Your approach seems to have paid off. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate and a 98 percent college acceptance rate last year. How did you achieve that?

Many concepts that for a lot of kids exist only on paper, in reality are right outside the door, you just have to be willing to put in the extra effort as a teacher to create those experiences for kids. So rather then have kids study worksheet page after worksheet page on invasive plants we do a case study on Japanese knotweed. Students work with the Parks Department to test different ways of controlling Japanese knotweed in Forest Park. When we talk about immigration we don’t just read some three pages in a textbook. Our kids go out and interview people on the street to collect their immigration stories.

How do you keep students engaged?

We have a structure called “crew" that pairs up 15 to 16 students with one teacher who is responsible for staying on top of their kids, communicating with their parents, tracking their academic progress. So throughout all those years we know our kids on an individual level and we do whatever we can to make sure that they are put in a position where they get over the finish line in time.

I think teenagers will never admit that they like adults caring about them, but at the end of it there are a lot of people here that are always working with kids through their lunch, staying with them after school, checking in with them when they might be having a bad day. It’s not an accident that we have 96 percent attendance.

We have incredibly talented, passionate teachers. They are excited that they are actually able to teach rather than deliver some curriculum that was purchased from a company.

And our curriculum is looking at problems that have a lot of relevance for teenagers, like their food choices. They see a direct connection to their own lives.

We give kids the ownership over their learning. Our community garden in the back was designed and built by our sixth graders and the shed out there was built by a 12th grade physics class.

We are not afraid to give kids power tools or take them foraging in Forest Park with Steve "Wildman" Brill.

What are the advantages of having two principals at school?

We are a school that invests heavily in collaboration and our teachers do a majority of their work in teams. We structure a lot of collaborative work for our students so to have a single person in charge wouldn’t really make of lot of sense for the kind of atmosphere and the working relationships we are trying to create here.

Pat and I share one office and we discuss every single decision that gets made here and really push each other to think about all the different perspectives. I think it’s led to much more thoughtful and smarter decisions.