King Middle turns around with expeditions

PORTLAND – When Mike McCarthy took over as King Middle School’s principal in 1988, students were segregated into five groups based on perceived ability: “challenged,” “remedial,” “below average,” “average” and “advanced.”

Test scores were below the state average, and teachers accorded students different treatment based on the group to which they were assigned.

King Middle School students work in a technology education class.
Students at Portland's King Middle School work on a machine that emulates a tornado in their technology education class.

Today, the 550-student school’s test scores exceed the state average, and the performance of Portland’s two other middle schools, even in an environment where more than 30 percent of students are English-language learners and 57 percent of students are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches.

McCarthy attributes the turnaround to a philosophy change among staff members that all children can learn and the school’s adoption of the expeditionary model of learning.

“Highly engaged learning works,” McCarthy said June 7 during a visit to King by Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.

King Middle School became one of the first schools in the United States to implement the Expeditionary Learning Schools model, in which classes are designed around “expeditions” that emphasize inquiry, research, story-telling and intensive final projects.

Students produce documentaries telling the stories of their expeditions and post them on the school’s website.

  • Each year, King Middle School hosts 300 visitors interested in learning about and, often, replicating the Expeditionary Learning Schools model and the middle school’s use of technology in instruction.
  • King Middle School students speak 32 different languages, and English-language learners are assigned to mainstream classrooms just months after enrolling. There’s no sense in keeping those students apart, McCarthy said. Otherwise, they become a permanent “class of underachievers.”
  • In March, four King Middle School students delivered the keynote address at the Expeditionary Learning Schools national conference in Portland, Ore. The King students described their civil rights expedition, called Small Acts of Courage, which involved firsthand research into local ties to the Civil Rights Movement. The students delivered their address online, through a videoconferencing tool. Click here to watch the presentation.

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