Specialty schools fret loss of trained teachers

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Teacher layoffs have been at the heart of a heated debate about cuts to the city’s education budget, but those layoffs could have farther-reaching consequences for schools with unique curriculums like Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Forest Hills.

The school, at 91-30 Metropolitan Ave., has a curriculum based on semester-long projects, as opposed to traditional classroom environments with textbooks and homework, and spends more time and effort training teachers.

It is part of a group of roughly 150 expeditionary learning schools around the country founded by Outward Bound, a nonprofit that aims to educate kids through both mental and physical expeditions.´╗┐

“All of the courses are built around learning expeditions. It’s a project that they need to work on as a group,” said Taola Vita, director of development and external relations for Outward Bound. “They also structure the day so part of it will be in what might be considered a regular classroom setting.”

But ideally, all the subject matter that students typically learn in a classroom — for example, math, science, reading and writing — will be part of the project, according to Vita.

As an example, a school might study Newtown Creek, whether it has become safer and cleaner, and what effects that will have on the community.

At the end of the semester, the groups of kids present their findings to parents and assess their own weaknesses and strengths instead of being evaluated by a teacher.

But the teachers do plenty of work, including planning out the expedition and making sure students are receiving the appropriate education in an unorthodox environment.

“Teachers who like it love it, and for other teachers it can be overwhelmi­ng,” Vita said. “I think it does require a particularly creative person to do it well. You have to really want to go deeply into the subject matter.”

And that is why schools like the Forest Hills expeditionary school might have more trouble with layoffs.

Outward Bound is very focused on teacher development to both prepare and continually develop unique skills that are needed to implement the curriculum.

“Our teachers receive intensive and ongoing professional support,” Vita said.

Since Metropolitan Expeditionary School is only a year old, it has hired many new teachers who would have to be laid off as part of the “last in, first out” policy.

According to a document released by the city Feb. 27, seven of the Forest Hills school’s 17 teachers could be laid off.

And that means all the time and money spent on training teachers would not only have been wasted, but incoming teachers would need to be trained as well.

“It would be having to start over,” Vita said.

She pointed out that since each school is unique in some way, they will all be affected similarly.

In Kew Gardens last Thursday, hundreds of teachers rallied outside Queens Borough Hall, at 120-55 Queens Blvd., and listened to a laundry list of borough lawmakers take their turn bashing the mayor and the budget cuts.

“I’m here to tell Mr. Mayor that teachers are not your personal´╗┐ pinatas,” said state Assemblyman William Scarborough (D-St. Albans), whose district includes PS 30, which is slated to close. “They are not your scapegoats.”

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4566.

Updated 11:00 am, October 12, 2011
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