Principal’s Corner: Sweet success at Sierra Expeditionary Learning School |

Principal’s Corner: Sweet success at Sierra Expeditionary Learning School

David Manahan
Courtesy photo |

In August 2010, we opened our doors at Sierra Expeditionary Learning School (SELS) to 64 students in kindergarten through fifth grade to provide place-based, experiential curriculum.

Six years later, I am proud to report that our school has more than tripled in size, and we now serve 212 students in kindergarten through eighth grade

SELS is an EL (Expeditionary Learning) Education Credentialed School, meaning that in our six-year span, we have achieved national recognition among the EL Network of schools, indicating high performance.

The program model is derived from a joint effort between Harvard Education and Outward Bound, focusing student learning on active engagement, quality of work, critical thinking and character.

We have learned that this educational approach promotes curiosity, undefeatable spirit, compassion and community. The motto “We are crew, not passengers” is used to reference that we are all participants in this learning journey.

The EL Education network comprises 152 schools across 30 states, serving over 40,000 students.

A core component of SELS is our incredible staff. From support to full-time, all create a love of learning and sense of community for students and families.

Emphasizing student and crew character helps build a strong school culture of excellence. Weaving themes like integrity and resiliency into lesson plans, students are challenged to think critically while also establishing a growth mindset that will benefit them for years to come.

Academically, students immerse themselves in learning expeditions that range from construction projects to understanding the science behind DNA. These semester-long interdisciplinary units are developed around state standards, themes within our area and locations in which to visit.

Experts, both local and global, are utilized and serve as key educational resources that allow students to connect even deeper to what they are learning inside and outside the classroom.

We have a unified approach to developing the whole child. A few examples include:

Culture: Student-led community meetings are organized twice per month where the entire school comes together for multi-grade activities, readings and reflections on character topics, and various student achievements and presentations.

Adventure: Place-based learning is critical to our curriculum structure. Fieldwork takes our students on many explorations, from camping in the Monterey Bay Aquarium to touring John Muir’s house, investigating ethnicity in San Francisco to physics at a Reno Aces game, hiking Yosemite National Park and caving Lava Beds National Park.

Character Development: Students learn skills to help identify how traits such as strength, integrity, respect, responsibility and empathy impact their social-emotional lives and academic pursuits. Teachers lead this development with consistent guidance and support, providing many opportunities to practice and receive feedback.

Community Service: Student projects are centered on giving back to the local community, such as creating interpretive signs for organizations, developing resource materials and planting trees.

Also, to further give back to our community, we helped pilot two community-wide programs in 2013. Positively Rolling is now offered in most area middle schools and provides an open environment for discussion and creativity among local boys, aiming to increase confidence and provide productive tools to process thoughts, emotions and real-life experiences.

Crystal Compass connects middle school girls with local women and engages them in an ongoing process of exploring and understanding their own inner landscape, gaining a deeper understanding of who they are, what they enjoy and how to express themselves with grace and confidence.

As you can see, SELS is an incredible place for our students to learn and I feel lucky to be the director of this amazing school.

David Manahan is director of Sierra Expeditionary Learning School within the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District. Visit for more.

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