Culture and Community Context

Polaris Expeditionary Learning School is a K-12 school in Fort Collins, CO’s Poudre School District.

The school is quite unique as a public school for several reasons. As an Expeditionary Learning School – a national school reform model – school curriculum is designed so that students learn primarily by experiencing the world around them. Students learn by exploring in and outside of the classroom going on many field trips throughout the year. A strong connection between studies and a real world application is essential. Unlike traditional thinking about education, the building of character in students is at the forefront of the schools educational priorities.

Polaris is also unique because it does not serve a specific neighborhood community – Polaris is a 100% choice school. This means that the student community comes from a variety of backgrounds. Teachers who work at Polaris are committed to the philosophy of Expeditionary Learning.

The school focuses on the student’s natural desire to learn and teachers act as facilitators who guide that experience. Choice and student accountability are strong themes in the schools instruction. Students create Presentations of Learning to demonstrate how their individual choices influenced their learning and growth as a student.

To visit the schools website, click the button below.

Image found on Polaris website.

Support Structure

Within the school, there are many systems in place to support students in their mental and physical health and fulfill their unique needs. The school employs a full-time health technician, two full-time counselors, and two para professionals. Support for students also comes from outside of the school through the parent community. Parents help with field trips, special events and fundraising. Community Meetings are regularly held where teachers can share student work, students present their learning and announcements are made. These meetings act as a line of connections between the school and it’s surrounding community.

Students are given the opportunity to go on many field trips or adventure trips where they fulfill Colorado’s State Standards outside of the classroom. In support of students learning, students may explore a controversial issue from both sides. For example, the schools principle – Mr. Joe Gawronski – told us the story of a field trip from the previous year where students went to a National Forest Reservation and talked with scientists about the preservation of wolves in National Parks. Then students took another trip to speak with farmers who’s livestock had been killed by the wolves, affecting their livelihood. This encompassing way of exploring content provides students with a real-world example of concepts they are learning in their classrooms while giving them an opportunity to develop life long skills – like the ability to compare and contrast, to think critically, and to research and see an issue from several perspectives. This is a form of support for students as it will aid them as citizens when they graduate. The building of character in students is a huge form of support that Polaris provides.

Image found on Polaris website.

Demographic Characteristics

The following Demographic information was found on Polaris’ website along with and regarding their student population.

There are 386 students enrolled at Polaris.

Student to teacher ratio is 18:1 for elementary students and an average of 25:1 for high school.

Students are eligible for free and reduced lunch – 36%

Gifted students  – 12.2%

Male Students – 56% 
Female Students – 44% 

White students – 85.1%
Hispanic students – 7.5%
Multi-racial students – 4.1%
Asian students – 2.4%
Native American students – 0.7%
African American students – 0.3%

TCAP 2017 Test scores (% met standard)
3rd grade: 58.8% English
              41.2% Math
4th Grade: 82.4% English
              47.1% Math
5th Grade: 37.5% Science
              37.5% Math
6th Grade: 48.7% English
              38.5% Math
7th Grade: 46.7% English
              28.6% Math
8th Grade: 48.5% Science
              47.1% English
9th Grade: 78.3% English

Middle School
Statewide Ranking -103rd
Average Standard Score – 67.39
Colorado Percentile – 75.2%

High School
Statewide Ranking – 43rd
Average Standard Score 65.5
Colorado Percentile – 82.8

Click the button below to see a few documents from Polaris’ website siting data about their school’s performance and a 2016 Parent Satisfaction Survey.

Image found on Polaris website.

Classroom Environment and Students

At Polaris, Layne and I teach art in Tamara’s 2nd and 3rd grade classroom. There are 18 students in Tamara’s class. The room is colorful and well organized. On the floor in front of the white board and Tamara’s desk is a circular carpet where students sit boy-girl-boy-girl for their daily morning meetings. Students know routines well and help with set up and clean up responsibilities. Each day starts with a gladiator check in where students use their hands to show their general feeling that day; one student is a thumbs down because his family had to put down his cat last night; another student is a two-thumbs up because today is her sisters birthday. The sharing brings the class together as a community as they work to hear and support one another.

Making art in this classroom is quite a challenge with carpeted floors and one small sink. Students have many choices about how they want to work. Some sit on the floor at a short table; others stand while working; some utilize large yoga balls as seats to help with their fidgeting and focus. Each student is quite unique, but all area engaged and full of energy. When they enter the room and are reminded that today is Friday (which means ART) they smile and cheer excited to create something new or continue their projects. During art the class is wild with energy and conversation. A gentle chime can help bring students attention back to their teachers. Some students require additional support:

  • Student 1 is on the Autism spectrum. He often needs reminders for general routines and is often slow to start working. He needs to be able to stand while he works, and he should use a privacy screen.
  • Student 2 can be silly but responds well to redirects. Don’t give him an inch or he’ll take advantage.
  • Student 3 and 4 are sensitive and can get overwhelmed easily. They are both very capable. If they cry, allow a moment for them to come up with an acceptable solution.
  • Student 5 is dealing with some socio-emotional challenges. Encourage her to use the ice cube pass and let her know that there are acceptable ways to handle her anger. She will probably need space to gather herself.
  • Student 6 and 7 can tend to rush through work… please encourage them to revise and put in their full effort.
  • Student 8 has extreme ADHD and struggles to produce work. One must make sure he is seated at a desk for independent work time (which will also help reduce conflicts with others). He has a lap weight and white noise on headphones to help him concentrate.
  • Student 9 can suffer from extreme anxiety (and he has some speech issues). Student 10 is a good person to help him calm down.
  • Student 11 needs firm boundaries but responds well once you form a relationship.

To see our blog about this teaching experience with descriptions and documentation of each class period, click on the button below.

Students working with clay during my teaching of the lesson Home for a Friend.

School-Wide Policies


Polaris has implemented a school wide behavior expectation policy called The 6 P’s. Students are held accountable to these expectations each day by all staff. The 6 P’s are as follows:

1. Prompt: On time; Respecting and valuing other peoples time; follow directions for where and when (“by zero please be on the rug, 5, 4….0”)
2. Prepared: Physically prepared and emotionally prepared; Have materials; Do routines; Ready to use attending skills
3. Polite: Respect; No violence; Manners; Care about others; Accept and interact with everyone
4. Positive Mental Attitude (PMA): Try your hardest; Not giving up; Positive thoughts, comments, and questions; Help others feel better and offer encouragement
5. Participate: Do what you are told; Work with others; Help your group and others; Encourage others
6. Produce: Try your best; Quality work; Think and pay attention to work; Produce something you would be proud of


Students school wide have been taught these 5 important components of attending and will be expected to use all 5 when the teacher and peers are talking in the classroom during instructional and crew time. When attention is required, students understand that they should be using their attending skills and can be prompted to check their behavior simply by stating “Are you using your attending skills right now?”

1. Be in the moment: Thinking about what the speaker is saying; Paying attention and not staring into space
2. Body language: Use your own muscles and bones to sit up; Sit like a pretzel; Face the speaker; Positive expressions
3. Eye contact: Looking at the speaker
4. Appropriate feedback: Feedback that does not interrupt the speaker; Positive; “Okay” or “Yes” when asked to do something; Sometimes no feedback is required
5. Questions and comments: Positive; Show you were listening and thinking; Relevant; Validating


Poudre School District schools have their Resource Officers that promote a safe climate for schools. Officers utilize proactive communication and relationships to ensure safety within the school. The district also continually revisits and updates crisis plans and works to implement prevention programs at the schools. This helps to ensure safe and comfortable learning environments for the students. Polaris operates with a School Accountability Committee and a Site Based Management Team. The SAC is responsible for making recommendations to the principal concerning school funding, performance, and improvements. The SBMT is responsible for aligning the school to the national expeditionary model.

Image found on Polaris website.