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Expeditionary Learning: Bringing the Classroom to the Community

Posted: 12:09PM September 9th, 2011 | Comments

Toki Middle School lies in the Meadowood Neighborhood in the heart of Southwest Madison.  Over the past decade, poverty has taken a strong foot-hold.   Ten years ago 14% of Toki students were considered low-income.  Today it is 57%.   Along with an increase in poverty, the community has experienced a whole host of social ills including an increase in violence and racial and class-based conflict. How can a school thrive when students come in hungry, tired and stressed?  What can teachers and staff do to help make positive change in their school and neighborhood?  Well, one teacher has a vision and she is working hard to make this vision a reality.  
Carlene Bechen has worked as a sixth grade teacher at Toki for the last four years.  She has found hope in a newer model of education called Expeditionary Learning (EL).  EL is an educational reform movement that ties learning to actual projects happening in the places where students live.  In the case of Toki, Carlene is working with other Toki teachers to tie the sixth grade curriculum to the community-based sustainability efforts underway in their neighborhood – the Russett Road Front Yard Gardens, the Balsam Pantry Garden, and Meadowood Park.  This teacher team also has a vision of transforming the 18-acre school ground into a rich community space offering students and neighbors a place to connect and rejuvenate.  
While an ambitious plan, things are already starting to fall into place. She has found fellow Champions in her peers and the school principal.  So much so that teachers at Toki just spent a 3-day in-service laying the foundation for this work.   And these Champions have put together a diverse project team.  In addition to Expeditionary Learning Schools project partners include the Department of Public Health of Madison and Dane County (and our Badger Bioneers Public Health Nurses Jessica LeClair and Kim Neuschal), the Southwest Community Organizing Committee, the University of Wisconsin, Community GroundWorks, and Sustain Dane.
It is an exciting time for Toki Middle School and the Meadowood Neighborhood.  This project has the potential to become a national model demonstrating how schools, neighbors, non-profit organizations, and the private sector can champion education and community renewal together.

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