PORTLAND, Maine — On a recent fall morning in the library of King Middle School here, four seventh-grade girls interviewed an immigrant from Peru named Luis Millones who is a Spanish professor at Colby College. One girl asked Millones what he missed about the country he left nearly three decades ago.

“I miss the sound of the language, because it kind of fades away,” he said. “I miss the sunset over the ocean. I miss the smell of earth in the highlands right after it rains. I miss also some tastes, like Peruvian chili and fruits like the lucuma, which I can never find anywhere else.”

The girls took turns asking Millones other questions. Why did he come to America? What were his first impressions? Did he ever feel mistreated as an immigrant? They split up other tasks, too, such as taking notes, recording video, requesting photographs and emailing follow-up questions.

In the weeks ahead, the girls would weave the interview and their research into four narratives about Millones, one of several immigrants telling their stories at King, where nearly a quarter of its students were born overseas. The writing and photos would be bound into a book and sold, with the proceeds donated to a nonprofit helping new immigrants.

The project typifies the mix of personalized and social learning that has been a mainstay for 25 years at King, a founding member of a school network called EL Education. The network sets these schools apart from a more recent wave of personalized learning, which has been dominated by technology and dogged by criticism that it isolates students from each other and from larger purpose of learning.

“We’re at a very important moment because personalized learning is everywhere right now, and it’s been taken up by big funders, so everybody wants to say they’re doing it,” said Ron Berger, EL’s chief academic officer. “But there’s no common definition yet for what personalized learning actually is.”

EL’s definition puts two elements at its core: “expeditionary learning” projects and Crew, a program that places students in small groups, called crews, in which they remain from grade to grade. The crews also join an education adviser in daily meetings so they may support and challenge each other. The model won’t work everywhere, as even its most ardent backers admit. But it is used in about 150 schools in more than 30 states, and the nonprofit’s leaders have recently stepped up efforts to spread their approach.

'We are crew'

Elsewhere at King, about a dozen seventh-graders sat in a circle of chairs, desks pushed against the walls. For the next hour, they weren’t classmates, they were crewmates, a.k.a. “crewbies.”

Crews sometimes brainstorm about personal goals and academic struggles, or debate tough issues such as free speech and school shootings. On this day, after recent student fights, the crew played a conflict-resolution game called “Is This Seat Taken?” and another called “Instigator,” in which two students tried to identify a “leader” surreptitiously chosen by the others.

“It sets the example for us of how to work together and be cooperative,” seventh-grader Elizabeth Martinez said. “And how to listen to each other.”

The EL motto, “We are crew, not passengers,” is a quote from Kurt Hahn, the German Jewish educator who fled the Nazis in the 1930s and went on to start the nonprofit Outward Bound, which co-founded in 1991 the Expeditionary Learning network (later renamed EL Education) in partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Ten schools began using the model in 1993.

“Kids in traditional schools sometimes act like they’re on a cruise ship, where they sit on deck and teachers bring them stuff to do,” Berger said. “We think of school more like a sailing schooner, where everybody, both kids and adults, are pitching in and swabbing the deck but also charting the course.”

Overall, the approach gets good academic marks. After three years in an expeditionary learning school, students outpaced traditional school peers by seven months in reading achievement and 10 months in math, according to a 2013 study by Mathematica Policy Research that EL commissioned. A 2011 study by University of Massachusetts researchers also found standardized test-score gains by students in two EL schools in Rochester, N. Y., compared with peers.

EL partners with schools, nearly all of them public, that remain under district or charter control but fully invest in Crew and expeditionary learning. The network was capped at about 150 schools, because the partnerships rely on intensive, in-person training and coaching. Every year, about 10 schools join EL and a similar number leave.

When they’re new, EL schools go through several months of professional development, classroom observation and co-teaching. For a school to be eligible to join, at least 40 percent of students must be from low-income families. Just as important is teacher buy in. “If the teachers and staff are not truly on board,” Berger said, “then we say no.”

Some teachers balk at leading a crew. “There are a lot of teachers who will say, ‘I was hired to teach math, not to be an adviser or a therapist to a bunch of kids,’ ” Berger said.

Among reasons a school might leave the network:

● The fee, which starts at about $50,000 a year for new schools that need a lot of support and drops to about $15,000 for more seasoned members.

● New principals who want to champion their own approach.

● The school is simply a poor fit.

This year, for example, Harvey Elementary School in Kenosha, Wis., parted ways with EL after five years because teachers struggled to align EL lessons and progress measures with the separate standards and reporting required by their district. Harvey’s principal, Ursula Hamilton-Perry, said she “believes fully in EL” and hopes to rejoin, but had to step back when the extra time and other challenges of making everything fit “started to get in the way of students making progress.”

Occasionally, Berger conceded, “we’re simply not able to turn a school around. We’re not providing them what they need, and we get divorced.”

That divorce rate is far lower among schools that were founded in partnership with EL, such as Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine, than among schools that adopted the model after years as a more traditional school. Casco Bay’s principal, Derek Pierce, credits much of the school’s success to the way crew culture personalizes each student’s journey over four years.

“We have three big questions in crew: Who am I? How am I doing? And what are my plans for the future?” Pierce said. The questions crop up explicitly at twice-yearly student-led conferences with parents and crew advisers; in individual presentations made at the end of freshman and sophomore years; and in the reflective “Final Words” remarks students give as a prelude to graduation. Pierce said this self-reflection bolsters the team-focused mission.

“Kids are social beasts, and they’re at their best when they’re asked to help each other,” he said.

'We're all in this together'

Although many teachers in these schools sometimes use technology, there is a shared wariness of undermining EL’s collaborative ethos.

“I’m skeptical of personalized learning that is too much about kids spending a lot of time on computers marching through discrete tasks at their own pace,” EL’s Berger said. “It pulls kids too often away from doing meaningful work and having meaningful interactions with peers, and it can value the individual needs over the idea that we’re all in this together.”

That sentiment is echoed by Jason Krause, principal of Denver’s Columbine Elementary School, which joined the EL network in 2018. He had been disenchanted with his school’s previous personalized learning initiative. “I started feeling like we weren’t talking about people as much as technology and infrastructure and very solitary, parallel learning that created almost a disconnect,” Krause said.

That said, EL’s leadership relies heavily on technology to spread crew and expeditionary learning concepts more broadly. Until five years ago, efforts were limited to word of mouth. Then, EL’s leaders began to share their model piecemeal through a web-based library of books and videos and an open-source English language arts curriculum for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

EL’s English language arts curriculum combines literature, nonfiction and historical documents with explorations of such topics as the sustainability of America’s food supply and the American Revolution. At the close of each unit, students do independent research for a final project that they present to outside audiences. For instance, fifth-graders learn about natural disasters by reading and analyzing a book about a Haitian boy in his country’s 2010 earthquake; they then write an opinion essay about the critical items for an emergency preparedness kit and present a public service announcement to an audience.

In 2018, Detroit’s public schools adopted EL’s English language arts curriculum, joining several districts that use it in some schools or grade levels. With EL’s sponsorship, Mathematica is now studying these districts to see if the curriculum boosts test scores.

In Casco Bay this fall, as her 11th-graders filed into the classroom, English teacher Susan McCray paired them up at tables labeled “Healthcare,” “Criminal Justice,” “Housing,” “Addiction” and so on. The categories roughly matched the policy topics her students had chosen within the larger class theme of America’s widening wealth gap.

Ultimately, every student would write a paper on a proposed policy solution to a societal ill and present proposals to a panel of experts. When they were mired in the research phase, they took turns explaining what they’d learned. “How much would that cost?” “What statistics back you up?” “What else has been tried?”

All expeditions follow a similar pattern, weaving personalized choice and collaborative effort.

Expeditions are interdisciplinary. Before engineering alternative energy machines, King Middle School students met the grade-level science standards on light, energy and natural resources. They dug into the history and economics of different energy sources in social studies, and read a book in English class about a boy from Malawi who gave his village electricity with do-it-yourself wind power.

The final products, known as culminations, are another shared experience, with students presenting projects and inventions to peers, parents and experts.

At Casco Bay, an entire wall of the school’s “Great Room” is plastered with senior photos and summaries of their expedition projects. Their goal is to offer a “slice of the solution” on issues ranging from hunger in Maine to jump-starting the state’s aquaculture industry to Portland’s need for affordable housing.

“The goal of this work is to find the intersection between a personal passion and a need in the world,” Berger said. “That’s the intersection where we want kids to live their lives, and as adults, too.”

This story about personalized learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.