Friday, January 22, 2010

AXL Academy - An Interview with Audra Philippon

Recently I had the pleasure of touring AXL Academy in Aurora, Colorado. The school, which follows an Expeditionary Learning model, is in the middle of its second year and is doing very well. There are already hundreds on applicants on the waiting list for a few prized spots. The Head of School, Dr. Audra Philippon answered my many questions and showed us around, and allowed us to observe each of the classes in progress.

What was the impetus behind the new AXL Academy and how is it unique?
I had been baking the idea of this school for five or six years and moved from Philadelphia to Colorado for the purpose of opening the school because of Colorado’s generous charter school rules. I looked for an area where there was the greatest need for family choices, a lot of student diversity in an urban setting. I chose Aurora because it met each of these requirements and there were only two other charter schools in the city at the time.

The school is unique in that we believe everyone should enjoy the process of learning. We do not prepare students for the “real world”, we teach in the real world. We do not have to use gimmicks, incentives or behavior management tricks to motivate our students – real content is engaging to kids. We also believe that our teachers are professionals, and we treat each other accordingly. There is real diversity here, socioeconomically with 60% on free or reduced lunches, a dozen world cultures, and 11 different primary languages. We also have Spanish instruction starting in Pre-K. By 8th Grade they will be bilingual.

What grades do you serve?
This year is K-6, and next year we will add a pre-K and a grade 7.

Describe Revolution in Learning.
College-prep curriculum is interesting, active instruction is engaging, and discipline is treated as another form of learning. The environment is informal, warm, safe, intimate and caring. The students are with their teachers for two years, and the teachers not only get to know their students well, but form deep and significant relationships with their parents.

I understand you have 20 kids in each grade level – a class of 20 boys and a class of 20 girls in each grade. Why is it important to AXL that genders be separated?
Every kid can learn in a variety of ways. This way gives them more strategies and they come from a position of strength. It’s not so much that boys learn differently or even at different paces than girls, it is more about the social dynamics that seem to get in the way of taking risks. At previous schools, I had girls in pre-school telling me that they can’t play basketball. Not that they were unable to play, but that it was something that “only boys do”. It is important in children’s formative years to show them how capable they are, to build that foundation for learning and confidence. We have boys here in 3rd Grade giving hugs and writing poetry, and we have girls who are competitive in improving their math. [Organizing students into single gender crews is not about achievement per se, but more about social and emotional courage, and academic confidence and trust.

What is your philosophy on school uniforms?
Our students wear uniforms but they are not formal. They are khaki pants with the AXL green polo shirt and sneakers. They are not allowed make up or fussy jewelry. It is comfortable and safe, and they need to be prepared to get dirty in the process of learning. You never know when we might be digging in dirt, painting murals, or making our own paper! I love seeing girls not so obsessed about appearance, and boys even coming to school with bed head sometimes.

AXL students attend school year round with three short breaks and are in school longer than the average public school (200 versus 172 days). Students are also allowed 75-minute blocks, rather than the conventional 50-minute blocks of instruction. This changes the depth and continuity of learning. What made you decide on these scheduling factors?
Expeditionary Learning integrates all subjects (except math), so for example the 5th Grade studies solar energy. They use primary sources for content and cover that even in history, poetry, reading, science, etc. They prepare live presentations or videos and must become experts on their subjects. This takes more focused time and so teaching blocks are more like 75-90 minutes to allow for this type of depth.

Expeditionary learning is really growing fast. What do you attribute to this growth and popularity?
When you overhear a 3rd grader at a birthday party talking about the habitat of prairie dogs and the importance of a keystone species in the local ecosystem, or your child comes home with IRS tax forms to apply for a tax credit for solar panels on your home, it’s hard to ignore how excited the students are!

We did not do any marketing this year, and more than 200 students have applied already for fewer than 75 seats for 2010-11. Last year we had more than 600 applicants for 70 vacancies. As a network of schools, we are getting better at representing students’ achievement in the media, and we finally have quantitative research documenting the incredible gains at-risk students are making nationally learning in this progressive educational mode. Expeditionary Learning was one of the very first models of comprehensive school reform to get funded by Annenberg in the early 1990s. It grew out of Outward Bound, which nourishes courage, craftsmanship, respect, integrity, and authenticity, etc.

You mention that you go beyond Colorado’s mandated tests and use authentic assessments of students’ knowledge and skills. Can you describe how you do this and how effective it is?
[Similar to Odyssey School in Denver], students prepare portfolios, which are representative samples of their work. They demonstrate their knowledge and ability, reflect on their progress, and make presentations in formal settings. Sometimes assessments are not necessarily pencil and paper oriented. For example the student may have a diorama of the Highline Canal or a collection of scientific illlustrations of the tomato plants growing and being harvested by students. At the end of every two-year loop (the second year with their teacher) the students undergo a high stakes rite of passage, presenting and answering questions for an external, formal panel in order to earn their promotion to the next grade level.

For more information on AXL Academy, go to:


  1. Wow! This is very cool, Tracy. And very much aligns with our educational philosophies and our program. Did she say she plans to go up to 12th grade? This seems to me to be the one model that would still excite teens, because it's so much more "real world" than, for example, Waldorf or Montessori. Thanks for the interview!

  2. The school was great. I think she is taking a wait and see approach on how fast they add grades. I assume that they will keep adding it, but they want to control the quality as they grow.

  3. AS A PARENT OF A STUDENT IN THIS SCHOOL TRUST ME WHAT THEY SPEAK IS NOT THE TRUTH. they promise great things and dont follow through. and if you dont wanna take my work for it check out this website and see the results of the education. read the reviews. this school is in no way able to meet with the needs of the gifted and talented. and if you want your child to go to college stay far away from this so called college prep school

  4. I agree with the last post. A ton of broken promises! Check out

  5. Thank you for your comments and I am sorry your experience was not as you had hoped it would be. I must say a name packs more punch than an anonymous comment. I think it is a good idea to have multiple perspectives on any issue, but I won't publish any more comments that have nothing new to add. I would prefer this blog not be the venue for a debate about the merits of this school. The original post was simply meant as an exploration of the school and its structure. In my experience there is no perfect school.

  6. this is a pretty good school. i am not so in love with the uniforms and some of there beliefs but overall their teaching is really good and they are a very hands on school

  7. Well, I just came across this article so I know I'm late - but I have to say, I LOVE AXL! I love that my daughter is learning spanish, the kids are seperated by gender (less distraction!), the uniforms are easy (shopping for school clothes is a cinch!)... but mostly I was impressed by the amount of attention my daughter recieves from her teachers. At parent/teacher conferences, I was blown away by the "portfolio" I got to see, which showed me and my husband the outstanding work my kid is doing in school! It's one thing to go to parent/teacher conference and hear about how your child is doing - it's another to be given a complete folder full of information on where your child is at! I have another daughter at a different public school and honestly, the difference is night and day. I have nothing but great things to say about this school!!

  8. Kristina AmirchianApril 2, 2011 at 10:50 AM

    I went to AXL from fifth grade until sixth. I'm pretty sure I had one of the greatest teachers at AXL; she was more motivated than most of the teachers I've had at other schools. I'm now in seventh grade at a regular public school, and I really do appreciate my parents taking the time to enroll me there. I must say, I didn't appreciate AXL while I was there; I felt as if I was being singled out often which I still do believe. If you are outspoken, committed, & have as huge of an opinion like I do, don't complain about the teachers picking on you, or treating you differently than the others. At the end of the day, you will thank AXL for having such a stern & straightforward attitude towards learning. I REALLY miss my teacher, Ms. Harrison, by the way. She inspired me to be the driven writer that I now am.