Expeditionary Learning Schools/Outward Bound (ELS) is widely recognized as a leader in the movement for comprehensive school reform in the United States. Founded in 1992, ELS helps educators learn to teach through long-term investigations (called learning expeditions), which actively engage students in building content knowledge and skills through real-world projects. Evaluations by seven independent researchers attested to the power of the ELS model to improve student attendance, conduct, and learning. This impressive performance caught the attention of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which made a $12.6M grant in 2004 to extend ELS’ work.
ELS’ leadership teamed up with the Bridgespan Group to develop a plan for growth. The first step was to get really clear about how well current initiatives were working. Field staff surveys revealed that while ELS was making progress in almost all of its schools, too few schools were reaching the level of excellence the organization’s mission demanded. To stay true to its mission, ELS committed to implementing some major changes—including making the tough decision to exit selected lower performing schools in order to concentrate resources on those that had better odds of success.