Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School
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Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School
Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, better known as WHEELS (the acronym works if you abbreviate Heights as HE), is a well-run combination middle school and high school serving a Latino population in a neighborhood with few other good educational options. Sixth-graders from District 6 lucky enough to land in this close-knit community can expect to be greeted by a seasoned, dedicated faculty that will shepherd them over the next seven years toward a high school diploma and beyond.
“We tell our kids, ‘You are going to college!’ ” said principal Brett Kimmel, a former middle school assistant principal who founded WHEELS in 2006. It’s a familiar proclamation from principals, but WHEELS seems designed to fulfill its promise. Kimmel built a school that would nurture and guide students from 6th grade until graduation, so he wouldn’t be “saying goodbye to middle school kids after three years” and later hear tales of academic failure. He embraced the principles of Expeditionary Learning, adopting a hands-on curriculum with an emphasis on building student character and forming a long-term advisory bond with a teacher. NYC Outward Bound Schools is a lead partner with the school and supports the expeditionary learning concept, by offering camping trips and rock-climbing courses as well as ongoing teacher training and an instructional guide.
WHEELS saw its first long-term results in June 2012, when it graduated its first class. Of the kids who had arrived at WHEELS in 2006 as founding 7th-graders, 75 percent graduated, most of the rest are still working toward a diploma, and only two have dropped out—statistics far better than the city average, particularly among Latino youth. In what promises to become an annual December tradition, Kimmel led a parade of seniors three blocks to the post office so each could drop college applications in the mail. A police escort halted traffic, and the rest of the student body lined the route to loudly cheer the procession.
WHEELS occupies the entire fourth floor and part of the second floor in a modern four-story building it shares with IS 143 Eleanor Roosevelt. The Community Health Academy of the Heights has classrooms in a building across 182nd Street. The three schools share the main building’s cafeteria, auditorium, library and two gyms. The campus includes a health clinic and dental office, providing free services, but it lacks any significant outdoor space, so WHEELS has no recess period. Well-behaved WHEELS high school students are allowed to go off campus during lunch. The school offers a range of after-school sports, but students must often take subways or buses to athletic fields on Randalls Island or in the Bronx.
Kimmel boasts that his faculty “is second to none in New York City.” Teachers have on average about eight years of teaching experience, and half the faculty are alumni of the Teach for America program (as is Kimmel). WHEELS teachers get regular coaching from their peers plus other forms of professional development, and Kimmel says he has retained more than 90 percent of the staff he’s hired. (“We’ve never lost a teacher to another New York City Department of Education school,” he said.) Faculty meetings are arranged both by grade and subject matter, so teachers can craft curriculums that progress smoothly from 6th through 12th grade. Kimmel tries to hire teachers who are bilingual in English and Spanish. In classrooms we visited, teachers assertively maintained order, and students appeared respectful and obedient.
WHEEL offers a range of instrumental music courses (the school has three bands), plus a popular after-school drama club. But Kimmel admits he is still trying to “diversify” the limited curriculum in the small high school: WHEELS offers few Advanced Placement courses, and Spanish is the only foreign language taught. Kimmel said he is also working to make courses “more rigorous” so graduates will be properly prepared once they reach college. Instead of parent-teacher conferences, WHEELS has regular “student-led conferences” in which students display a portfolio of their work to family members and an advisor, and set goals for future performance.
Several proud seniors we spoke to praised their teachers’ dedication, and most said the school felt like a small, supportive family where they feel encouraged to succeed. Yesica, a 17-year-old senior active in sports and the drama club, said she spends so much time at WHEELS that “my mom asks me all the time, ‘How’s your first home?’ ” Rules of good conduct were strictly enforced (students who disrupt class quickly earn detention, and repeat offenders are suspended), and even informational talks in the auditorium are structured to prevent chitchat (students must leave an open seat between one another). Yet no one seemed to chafe at the rigid structure, which kept classrooms and halls orderly.
Special education: WHEELS offers integrated co-teaching (ICT) classes in which students with special needs are taught with other students in classrooms that have two teachers, one of whom is certified to teach special ed. The school also has special services, known as SETTS.
Admissions: About 85 new 6th-graders enter the middle school each year, virtually all of them from nearby District 6 elementary schools PS 189, PS 132, PS 115, PS 48 and PS 173. Students are unscreened. Kimmel recommends parents attend an open house or take a tour. Most 8th-graders stay at WHEELS for high school, and in recent years the school has received roughly 500 applications for 12 or 15 open seats. (“It’s harder to get into 9th grade here than it is to get into Harvard, percentage-wise,” Kimmel said.) (Skip Card, October, 2012)