NEW YORK–“Estiven Rodriguez couldn’t speak a word of English when he moved to New York City at age nine,” said President Obama in his January 2014 State of the Union address. “But last month, thanks to the support of great teachers and an innovative tutoring program, he led a march of his classmates–through a crowd of cheering parents and neighbors–from their high school to the post office, where they mailed off their college applications. And this son of a factory worker just found out he’s going to college this fall.”
The president can be forgiven for not adding that Estiven has a full scholarship to Dickinson College. And that the innovative school he attends, the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, is one of the network of NYC Outward Bound Schools, operated through the city’s network of Expeditionary Learning schools in partnership with the NYC Department of Education.
Estivan’s incredible success is no surprise to Richard Stopol, 62, president and CEO of NYC Outward Bound Schools since 1989. Their motto is, after all, Transforming Schools, Changing Lives; and their mission is to bring the Outward Bound philosophy—of hands-on learning, undertaking wilderness expeditions with transformative purpose, and of encouraging a holistic model where students are active participants in the learning process—to young students and their teachers.
In this remarkable New York City network, there are ten district public schools and one charter public school in all five city boroughs. In addition, the organization offers customizable Adventure and Team Building programs for students and teachers in their own network schools as well as in non-network schools and other youth-serving organizations. Their results are stellar: in 2013, 94 percent of their high school graduates were accepted into college. Many of their schools are now so popular that admissions are as competitive as for the top private schools. The Marsh Avenue school, for example, received over 1,700 applications for 150 sixth-grade seats; the Metropolitan school received over 1,100 applications for only 35 ninth-grade seats.
Richard grew up in Brooklyn, attending public schools, and then went to the University of Buffalo and New York University, where he earned his law degree. He began working for the Fund for the City of New York, helping nonprofits and city agencies improve their management. His boss at the time, Greg Farrell, had the idea to bring the Outward Bound approach to teaching and learning. Greg had gone on an Outward Bound expedition as a teenager and had found it, as most do, a life-changing experience.
In 1987, Richard went on his first Outward Bound expedition in New York City. In his group, three teenagers were paired up with him, Greg, and Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., currently the publisher of The New York Times and who was on the Outward Bound board. “We did blind trust walks across the Brooklyn Bridge; were given twenty dollars and told that money had to feed twelve people for dinner; and went rock climbing in Fort Tryon Park,” he says. “It was my personal discovery of how powerful an Outward Bound experience is—it truly took me out of my comfort zone–and I saw the city through an entirely new perspective. It’s an incredible classroom, both in nature and a built environment. I was hooked.”
Afterward, the students who’d gone on the expedition had improved math scores, even though they hadn’t studied any math on the course. Their self-confidence bloomed. “This notion of drawing young students out of their own comfort zones—challenging them to learn, to persevere, to overcome adversity, and to discover their own greatness—is the basis of the NYC Outward Bounds Schools,” Richard says. The schools are small and nurturing, and each student is placed in a Crew of 12-15 peers who meet several times each week with their Crew advisor to work on college prep, literacy skills, leadership development, and personal challenges. “Students learn that it’s okay to fail, because if they fail, they fail with support, especially from their peers,” he adds. “This gives them the confidence to keep on trying until they succeed.
“Our model isn’t about new ideas in educational models,” he adds. “It’s like putting old wine in new bottles. The implementation is what’s new, what’s powerful, and what counts. Kurt Hahn was not a wilderness adventurer; he was a German-Jewish educator, a very old-school European but at the same time very forward-thinking in his approach. For him, education was not just about intelligence or rote learning, but about character and moral development. And, most important for him was fostering compassion toward others and standing up for what you believe in. He believed that preaching to young people never works. But showing them that they’re needed never fails.”
When asked why such a successful model isn’t implemented in more New York City schools, Richard smiles. “We want to get it right, do it in a quality way, and have a modest expansion,” he says. One enormous factor, of course, is city real estate, and the complications of closing schools, opening others, and finding adequate space for the over one million students. Another is that teaching outside the box is not a concept that parents can often understand—until they see results.
“We rarely see kids asking, ‘Why are we learning that?”—because their learning is connected to the real world where there are endless discoveries,” Richard says. “They become active participants in their own education. For example, instead of having the traditional parent-teacher conferences which can cause a lot of anxiety for the students, the students present their work to their parents and their teacher. This put them in control. And, of course, it encourages students to work harder. I can’t tell you have many of our former students come back from college to tell me that the most important thing we gave them was a voice. ‘I had a chance to speak,’ is what they say. It was the validation they needed to encourage them to strive even harder.”
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Founded in 1987, NYC Outward Bound Schools has served over 60,000 students, teachers, administrators, and parents from over 300 schools and other youth-serving organizations throughout the City. Our educational approach challenges and supports students to do their best work, injects elements of adventure and discovery into schooling, grounds academic content in real-world issues and concerns, promotes teamwork as well as individual initiative, and places character and intellectual development on equal footing. For most participants, involvement with NYC Outward Bound Schools has resulted in profound learning and for many it has been transformational, helping them to recognize how much they are capable of accomplishing individually and collectively.