Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS)
A K-12 school where children may explore their own interests
Elementary school has no track record
Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, better known as WHEELS, is built on the premise that children learn best when they have activities and trips that allow them to explore the world around them. Kindergartners work in a school garden and visit the Bronx Botanical Garden to learn how plants grow. High school students visit organic farms to learn about the food supply and travel to the Indian Point nuclear power plant to learn about energy.
Founded as a middle and high school in 2006, WHEELS added a pre-K and kindergarten classes in 2014 and will add a grade each year until it serves K-12.
The elementary school, which had pre-k through 1st grade when we attended an open house in 2015, is housed in portable classrooms across the street from the main building. During "choice time," small children may pick an activity such as playing with blocks, playing dress up, reading or writing. Children may also choose where to siton a chair if they find the rug scratchy, for example. Science and social studies lessons are woven into trips to local parks, the farmers market, and the Queens Hall of Science. Pre-kindergartners have a one-hour nap.
The elementary school, designed as Spanish-English dual language program, was a work in progress at the time of our visit. The middle and high school, on the other hand, have a proven track record. Even though most students enter reading below grade, about three-quarters graduate on time and most go on to college.
The middle and high school grades share a modern four-story building with IS 143 Eleanor Roosevelt. The building 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.
Like all Expeditionary Learning schools, WHEELS has 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.
Every year, seniors march three blocks to the post office so each could drop college applications in the mail. A police escort halts traffic, and the rest of the student body lines the route to loudly cheer the procession.
WHEEL offers a range of instrumental music courses (the school has three bands), plus a popular after-school drama club. 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. Thomas Rochowicz became principal in 2015, replacing the founding principal, Brett Kimmel.
On our 2012 visit, students 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: The school offers regular tours. District 6 priority. (Skip Card, October, 2012; updated with elementary school visit, Mahalia Watson, December 2015)
About the students
About the school
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About the leadership
About the teachers
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Programs and Admissions
Students participate in interdisciplinary learning across all subject areas.
Boys PSAL teams
Baseball, Basketball, Soccer
Girls PSAL teams
Cross Country, Flag Football, Indoor Track, Outdoor Track, Soccer
Manhattan NY 10033