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Highlands Ranch school earns national credential

Fox Creek Elementary rewarded for ‘rigorous’ effort


Fox Creek isn’t your typical elementary school. At the start of each day, students in classrooms sit in a circle, greet one another and analyze a quote that promotes a life skill. They spend time in the community, studying wildlife in the Backcountry Wilderness Area, giving tours at the Highlands Ranch Mansion, pulling noxious weeds at an outdoor education facility in Larkspur.

“Nothing tells a kid that their learning is important better than when they see that it makes a positive impact,” said principal Brian Rodda.“When you cast a greater audience, it really turns on the light bulbs for kids.”

Fox Creek, 6585 Collegiate Drive in Highlands Ranch, is now a model for other schools.

On Oct. 29 at a ceremony in Chicago, the national school network EL Education — which stands for expeditionary learning — selected Fox Creek as one of six schools nationwide to receive the EL Education Credential. The honor, which is held by 33 schools total, recognizes the school’s achievement in three areas: mastery of knowledge and skills, character and high-quality student work.

EL Education started in 1991 as the result of a partnership between Harvard Graduate School of Education and Outward Bound, USA. The learning model combines philosophies of Outward Bound — character, teamwork, courage and compassion — with an “active approach to learning crafted by leading Harvard scholars,” its website says.

EL Education partners with 152 schools — many of which are the highest-performing public schools in their cities — across 30 states, according to EL Education.

In 2012, when the school was looking for a way to set itself apart from other neighborhood schools, Fox Creek implemented EL Education, said Angel Wolf, who opened Fox Creek and is now an instructional coach. It provided a structure, model and philosophy that staff and leadership supported.

“We knew we were a really good school,” Wolf said, “but we needed to find something that would move us forward so we wouldn’t get stagnant.”

Fox Creek’s curriculum is based on “learning expeditions.” The term describes a topic taken from content standards that integrates projects, questions, products created for an audience, fieldwork, experts and service.

Fifth-grade teacher Paul Thomas’ expedition is human rights. His students are reading articles and researching topics. They designed an online survey asking individuals basic questions about human rights that has garnered 230 results, which they will analyze, he said.

Multiple teachers and leaders of Fox Creek describe the process of earning the EL Education Credential as “rigorous.” A leadership team, made up of teachers, spent months analyzing data, reviewing instructional practices and interviewing students and parents. They compiled their evidence into a two-hour presentation for the director of EL Education earlier this year.

“You can say you’re doing it,” said Thomas, “but we have provided the evidence that shows we are doing it and doing it successfully.”

The school joins three other schools in Colorado — Downtown Denver Expeditionary, Odyssey School of Denver and William Smith High School in Aurora — that have the credential.

“We are providing the best and well-rounded education for our kids,” said Wolf. “We are developing character and global citizens that we need in our country right now.”


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