Beliefs, Practices, Impact

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We believe in creating rigorous, relevant curricula that result in complex, authentic student work made better with craftsmanship. We practice this in our classrooms by backward planning from tasks that are complex, authentic, and require high levels of craftsmanship. These tasks promote depth over breadth, spending more time on fewer topics that are viewed from multidisciplinary perspectives and vertically aligned to ensure a coherent progression of the big ideas and skills of each discipline made relevant to our students. Some common practices resulting from this belief across our PreK-12 include:

  • Long term and daily learning targets based on Common Core Standards and mapped backward from tasks written in student-friendly language to promote students’ ownership of their learning

  • Interdisciplinary expeditions in PreK-8 and case studies in 9-12 to promote critical thinking and deeper understanding

  • Close reading of nonfiction texts, often from multiple perspectives, so students develop understanding and arguments based on evidence from multiple texts

  • Scaffolds of daily and long-term tasks so that our English Language Learners and students with special needs can engage in higher-order thinking

  • Accountable talk, including Turn and Talks, Number Talks, and collaborative group tasks that encourage student-student discussion

  • The use of student exemplars and rubrics so students can see how they will be assessed and what success looks like

  • Formative feedback opportunities from the teacher and feedback protocols with peers along with opportunities to self-assess, reflect, and revise over multiple drafts

  • Daily debriefs so students can reflect on progress toward mastery of the learning target

  • Authentic opportunities to develop and present learning with families, fieldwork, and experts

  • Mastery Based Grading - students graded by Learning Target with HOWLs separate


We believe that success is built on Habits of Work and Learning (HOWLs) and Community Values (CVs) that develop our students as effective learners and ethical people. We have a set of four Habits of Work and Learning and four Community Values across our school that support all community members to become better learners and better people. Both sets of character targets push students to become leaders of their own learning, increasing their engagement in and ownership of their education. Some common practices resulting from this belief across our PreK-12 include:

  • Crew

  • Student-Led Conferences

  • Passage Portfolios

  • Discipline systems founded on relationships, reflection, and choices

  • Student leadership opportunities in extracurriculars, classrooms, and community


Teachers plan and refine curricula using their knowledge of the Common Core standards and similarly rigorous content standards, the EL Education core practices, their knowledge of our kids, and in collaboration with their colleagues. In pursuit of our mission that all students are college and career ready, teachers first must know the standards for their grade level and those above and below. This ensures teachers know the expectations for students in the next grade while also knowing the content/skill gaps that might require remediation from previous grades. Teachers plan their curriculum (in Expedition Scope and Sequences in the LG and Curriculum Maps in the MG/UG) and ensure vertical alignment across the level in the LG and as departments in MG/UG. Teachers refine their curricula in response to student needs, interests, and life experience, reflected in data, conversations, and student work. We use Mastery Based Grading so teachers, students, and families can see student performance by learning target, and this allows teachers to accurately adjust their planning based on the strengths and struggles of the students. Teachers assess student work consistently to determine strengths and next steps, and we build in professional development time to refine curricula with new practices from professional development and based on reflection from each semester. We assess planning adjustments and CCSS alignment through department chair and administrative review of planning documents. Our Administrative Leadership Team maintains a data dashboard to assess student outcomes by quarter, our Instructional Leadership Team (MG/UG) and LG Cabinet hold a Beginning of the Year, Mid-Year and End of Year Huddles to analyze student work and data patterns, and every teacher participates in a Quality Work Protocol by department or level. These practices support the creation and ongoing refinement of rigorous, engaging, coherent curricula aligned to the CCSS.


We use common assessments to assess specific skills to inform instructional practice, student groups, student programming, and curricular adjustments. As described above, all teachers use Mastery Based Grading to clearly communicate strengths and areas for growth on specific learning targets, separated from Habits of Work and Learning targets. Common literacy assessments in the Lower Grades include letter-sound recognition, Fountas and Pinnell, and TC Writing, all in English and Spanish, and the common numeracy assessments are Counting Jars fluency assessments,  and CGI. In the 6th - 9th Grades, ELA teachers administer the DRP to assess student reading levels, and this informs Literacy Block groups in the 6th-8th Grades. Other common assessment structures include an Argumentative Writing Rubric (6-12) developed by the ELA Department, Science Lab Report Rubric (6-12), HOWLs rubrics (PreK-3 and 6-12), Social Studies Debate Tasks (6-12), and Mock Regents in all classes culminating in Regents.

The impacts are:

  • 90% 4-Year Graduation Rate for Class of 2019

  • 71% College Readiness Index in 18-19

  • 76% of MG and UG students agreed or strongly agreed that teachers support their growth in HOWLs in student survey

  • 77% of positive responses to academic press questions on the NYC School Survey, 9% higher than the city average

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We believe that with high expectations and strong relationships between students, families, and staff, each student should be prepared to succeed in a post-secondary institution of his or her choice and beyond. Our college-going culture starts early, with students entering our 6th Grade knowing that we are on a mission for college success. Students attend college trips in Grades 7, 9, 10, and 11, and they receive one-on-one support starting in 11th Grade and continuing beyond graduation throughout their college experience. We backward plan from college success with several key initiatives.

  • Grade-level teams are the backbone of the school. Facilitated by team leaders, our teaming structure is the primary structure to know students, know families, and communicate and maintain high expectations. Grade-levels set teams aligned to our school Work Plan Goals.

  • Crew is the foundational opportunity to know students well and provide a sense of belonging, and the Crew Leader facilitates SLC’s and is the family’s first point of contact.

  • Community Meetings in the MG and UG are opportunities for the entire grade to come together to celebrate progress and identify areas for growth. Community Circles provide a similar opportunity and include families.

  • Students in Grades 6, 9, and 12 attend overnight camping trips to promote reflection and community.

  • Our Lower Grades pioneered Responsive Classroom two years ago, and similar practices, including Collaborative Problem Solving from Ross Greene, have spread to our MG and UG.

  • Co-curricular and extracurricular opportunities to apply learning and leadership skills in authentic contexts

  • We offer 4 AP classes and four College Now courses on-site. All juniors enroll in AP Seminar and all seniors enroll in AP Research.

  • All 8th Grade students have the potential to earn HS credit in both Algebra and Spanish.

We monitor school culture and community based on the specific Work Plan Goals that we have set for the year. We set specific benchmarks within character and community. For example, this year, we are focused on positive school culture. In the MG and UG, we are targeting traditions to celebrate students and interventions to support target students that need additional social-emotional supports. In the LG, we are focused on integrity and perseverance in the Work Plan. School-wide monitoring systems include attendance, student surveys and focus groups, Lowest Third Credit Accumulation, and OORS incident reports.


Expectations across our PreK-12 evolve to be developmentally appropriate, but in common are the ideas that students are held to high expectations and families and staff work together to consistently raise those expectations and support students that fail to meet them.

  • Our HOWLs and CVs are at the foundation of our expectations, along with our belief that students are successful when they are in safe, supportive environments that make them feel known.

  • We maintain consistency in our expectations through a Cabinet structure at each level, composed of team leaders, as well as our Administrative Leadership Team (APs and Principal), Culture Leadership Team (ALT and Team Leaders 6-12), and Instructional Leadership Team (ALT and Department Chairs 6-12).

  • We solicit student and family input into policies. For example, our uniform, cell phone, and transition policies were all significantly revamped this year in the UG with students sitting at the table to provide input into the policy.

  • We implemented initiatives to improve attendance across all three levels.

  • Staff norms to guide our collaboration and communication

We share the expectations with families, staff, and students:

  • Families - Family Handbook, SLC’s, SLC Guide, Remind App, Skedula Anecdotals, Family Teacher Association meetings, School Leadership Team meetings, and ongoing communication between Crew Leaders, Team Leaders, and families.

  • Staff - Staff Handbook, Grade Level Team two meetings per week, Department or Level Professional Development one meeting per week, Weekly Updates from each level AP

  • Students - Crew, Community Meetings


We communicate with families to support students’ progress toward the next grade, level, and college and career primarily through SLCs, where students articulate their strengths and areas for growth using student work and their grades. Families are given some understanding of the scope of the year at Back to School Night, but the ongoing work of communicating progress is also significantly increase with Skedula, our online gradebook that shows students progress toward mastery on learning targets in all classes in our MG and UG. We work with the Family Teacher Association to provide monthly updates on the progress of each level. Finally, our College Counselors provide college workshops for senior families as they prepare for applications, FAFSA, and the matriculation/transition process.


The impacts are:

  • 99% of high school graduates accepted to college

  • 75% of our alumni are enrolled or have graduated from a degree-granting postsecondary institution, compared with just 36.6% of Hispanics aged 18-24 nationally

  • 2017 first fall enrollment for graduates was 86%, compared with 63% nationally

  • 88% of positive responses to student-teacher trust questions on the NYC School Survey, 16% higher than the city average

  • 73% of positive responses to personal attention and support questions on the NYC School Survey, 12% higher than the city average

  • 71% of positive responses to classroom behavior on the NYC School Survey, 18% higher than the city average

  • 71% of positive responses to peer support for academic work questions on the NYC School Survey, 11% higher than the city average

  • 87% positive responses to innovation and collective responsibility questions on the NYC School Survey, 11% higher than the city average

  • 89% positive responses to school commitment questions on the NYC School Survey, 11% higher than the city average

  • 89% of positive responses to teacher influence questions on the NYC School Survey, 15% higher than the city average

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Our mission for college access and success permeates every aspect of our school, and we have Friends of WHEELS, a 501c3 attached to our school to support those efforts. The organization is fully integrated into our College Access Room and on our 12th Grade Team, and our Principal co-manages the program and sits on the board. This initiative raises around $400,000 each year in grants to provide one full-time and one part-time college counselor and one full-time and one part-time alumni counselor to ensure our students have access to college trips in 9th-11th grade, apply to best fit schools with competitive applications in 12th grade, get the best one-on-one advising throughout the process, and receive continued advising for their matriculation, perseverance, and graduation as alumni.

The impact of this work is:

  • 75% of our alumni are enrolled in some sort of post-secondary education or alternative programming (including the military)

  • Nearly 90% of Class of 2017 graduates are currently enrolled in college this fall.

  • 31% of the Class of 2012 (our first graduating class) have graduated college with a 2 or 4 year degree and 31% are still enrolled.

  • 27% of Class of 2013 graduates have completed a 2 or 4 year degree or certificate of training and 25% are still enrolled.

  • We believe in our alumni and their potential for impact - two alumni teach at WHEELS and five serve in paraprofessional roles.

One of the major events of our college application process is the College March. Each December, our seniors march to the post office to mail the final components of the applications with the rest of our students and staff, along with families, elected officials, and businesses cheering them on. This event transcends a single day as each WHEELS student eagerly anticipates their College March day.

The impact of this work is:

  • Adopted by NYC Outward Bound Schools and EL Education, schools across the country have adopted a tradition that began at WHEELS.

  • President Obama celebrated the event, our teachers, and one of our students at his 2014 State of the Union Address.

  • Edutopia reported on the event in 2017 to further spread it as a promising practice across the country.

Our PreK-12 structure is one of two in the city. We use a teaming structure so that every teacher on a grade level knows every student; this tight-knit teaming structure ensures that teachers can build deep relationships with students and each other. We have traditionally built very strong relationships with families in our Middle Grades, and that has led to over 90% of our 8th graders each year matriculating to our 9th grade. We are looking to replicate this retention in our Lower Grades, and one of our key initiatives beyond those listed above is the monthly Community Circle, where we invite families into classrooms to see their child’s work and witness the class in action. Another foundational practice and part of our NYC Outward Bound Schools ethos intended to build relationships is Crew. Every student from PreK-12 is in a Crew of 15 students led by one Crew Leader. The Crew Leader is the primary point of contact for students and families in that Crew. The Crew Leader facilitates activities and initiatives 4-5 days each week to build relationships with the students and support them in building relationships with each other. In addition to the impacts outlined above that demonstrate the relationships with families and students, Paul Tough highlighted our school in his most recent book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why. He said, “When I visited another EL school last spring, the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (known as wheels), in Upper Manhattan, almost every classroom I observed was engaged in some kind of elaborate discussion or creative project that demanded involvement from every student.”

We partner with Safe Passage to support our students who are undocumented to get the legal representation they need to acquire permanent resident status or citizenship. This partnership has impacted the lives of several students every year and has been celebrated by Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien.