High School Reform

It all started in a German castle: How wilderness programs shape some urban schools

Techniques honed in the wilderness help students build homes, make films, tend gardens and act in a play about apartheid

Capital City Public Charter School students doing field work.

BOSTON — In 1963, Greg Farrell, an assistant dean of admissions at Princeton University, learned that an organization rooted in the teachings of a German educator was about to launch a wilderness training school in Colorado.

“I thought maybe they could use me,” he recalled recently.

A year later, Farrell found himself on an arduous expedition in the Rocky Mountains with nine other people. Although Farrell considered himself to be fit, nothing had prepared him for this.

“I thought for the first week I was going to die,” he said. But by the end of the second week, he found the experience “scintillating.” Everyone worked together, there were no lectures and participants learned by making mistakes. “I thought, school ought to be like this. Couldn’t you teach algebra this way? … Couldn’t you teach reading and writing this way?”

More than 50 years later, 152 schools in the EL (short for Expeditionary Learning) Education network are doing just that, and the network recently created a grades 3-8 curriculum that has been downloaded nearly 8 million times. The schools have taken the principles that Farrell encountered in the Colorado wilderness and applied them to K-12 education around the country.

As Farrell, who helped found the organization that would become EL Education, pointed out, this does not mean thousands of American schoolchildren scampering up rock faces. Following in the footsteps of Outward Bound, the schools that he and other developers envisioned aim to use real-life experiences to foster students’ compassion and perseverance, so that they can work collaboratively to confront issues in their own lives, their schools, their communities and beyond. The challenges they face in school can take the form of a snowshoe trek in the wilderness or a performance in front of an audience.

“The original idea for EL was taking the ideas of a good progressive education, the best of it, and combining it into something that could be implemented and serve low-income kids,” said Meg Campbell, co-founder of Boston’s Codman Academy Charter Public School, a member of the EL Education network.

Farrell’s initial wilderness course had its origins in the ideas of Kurt Hahn, a German educator who believed that education must address character, students can learn by failing, and learning should involve real-world experiences. After World War I, he teamed up with a German prince to launch a school that embodied those ideas in the prince’s family castle.

In 1933, Hahn fled Nazi Germany and opened a boarding school in an old estate near the Scottish coast. After World War II broke out, Lawrence Holt, the father of one of Hahn’s students and a partner in a shipping company, noticed that many young sailors were dying after their ships were torpedoed, while older seamen were able to hang on. Holt asked Hahn if he could create a program that would build sailors’ survival skills while fostering the compassion to help their shipmates. Hahn said he could. He and Holt called the class Outward Bound, borrowing a nautical term for a ship venturing out to sea.

When the war ended, the organization began offering similar courses to the public. In the early 1960s Outward Bound came to Colorado. It now provides wilderness trips as well as expeditions aimed at helping veterans and young people in crisis and team-building programs for groups and businesses.

Capital City Public Charter School students doing field work.

Farrell’s Colorado experience stayed with him. By the late 1960s, he was running anti-poverty programs in Trenton, New Jersey, and looking for ways to engage young people. He thought a taste of what he had encountered in the Rockies might help, so he arranged for some teenagers to take an Outward Bound course.

“They came back and they were sky high,” he said. “You take kids from an urban setting and send them out and they become heroes. But when they come back no one knows that. The reality of their lives drags them back in.”

To try to have a longer-lasting impact Farrell created what he calls “my first draft of expeditionary learning” at Trenton Central High School. Over time, Farrell and other like-minded people, including Campbell and Dr. Paul Ylvisaker (then the dean of Harvard’s education school), developed and honed the EL ideas. Bolstered by foundation funding, EL high schools began opening in the early 2000s, largely in low-income communities.

Today, EL Education says, the schools in its K-12 network serve about 50,000 students. They include traditional public schools and charters. Most are small. Their curricula differ according to their students, local and state rules and staff priorities. But all of the schools look back to the original ideas of Outward Bound, such as the need for “self-discovery” and an emphasis on collaboration and community.

“In the early days, community meant sitting around the campfire. … Now, it’s very highly structured,” said Rob Stein, former principal of the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning and now superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District in Colorado. Today, every EL student belongs to a group of peers that meets regularly with an adult; the students remain together through their time at school. The EL slogan is, “We are crew, not passengers.”

Their learning centers on projects and real-life experiences. Service is key, so projects often involve themes of social justice and community improvement.

Juniors at Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine, have gone to Detroit to do volunteer work and create short videos about community organizations and activists there. Previously, Casco Bay students traveled to other places in crisis, such as Biloxi, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina, and Queens, New York, following Superstorm Sandy.

A face-paced game of Ships and Sailors releases tension during a break in the practice for Poetry Out Loud at Codman Academy.

Students at Harborside Academy, a 6-12 charter in Kenosha, Wisconsin, focus on food availability. They have created their own vegetable gardens and raised funds to bring plant beds to local elementary schools.

One benefit of such projects, their proponents say, is that they interest students. “We want to go at the issues that are the hardest and most important both because they are but also because that’s what engages kids,” Casco Bay principal Derek Pierce said. Referring to his students’ Detroit videos, he explained “They want to do it not to get the best grade but because they want to tell that person’s story. It’s awesome when you get to the place where the work is making kids want to do their best.”

There are few numbers detailing EL schools’ performance. A 2013 Mathematica Policy Research study of several EL middle schools found that after three years the EL students had made significant gains in reading and math compared to other middle school students. A 2011 study of two EL middle schools and one EL elementary school in New York State found that they fared better at reducing race and income achievement gaps, particularly in English, when compared to similar schools.

Supporters of EL like to say that the approach can work with any child. But it does not work for all schools. Some leave the network, and most schools that express interest in joining never do. The $60,000 to $75,000 annual fee for the first four years (it then goes down), covering professional development, strategic planning, coaching and resources, can be an obstacle. The EL approach, chief academic officer Ron Berger said, works best with small schools, new schools and those with autonomy.

EL Education does not plan to expand beyond about 160 member schools but has extended its reach by creating curriculums that provide real texts (as opposed to textbooks) and incorporate EL’s mission to challenge students. Its grades 3-8 English language arts curriculum was created in response to a call from Engage NY, the state agency that spearheaded the adoption of Common Core learning standards. EL became involved, said Berger, because “there was tremendous need and support for this kind of teaching and learning.”

The English curriculum has been adopted by school districts from New York City to Huntington, West Virginia, to Oakland. Lindsey Smith, Denver schools’ director of language and literacy, likes the curriculum for “the complexity and richness of the texts. … The texts ask questions that are worth answering.”

Related: Common Core standards shake up the education business

Berger said, “Kids are asked to do harder work than is typical” with more difficult source material and deeper-level tasks.

At Codman Academy, a small charter school in the Dorchester section of Boston, the challenge of EL takes students to a downtown theater and their neighborhood streets. And the challenges involve venturing not up a rock face but out on stage all alone.

Codman, which opened as a high school in 2001, offers the full EL experience to 345 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. About 80 percent are African-American, and 45 percent are classified as “economically disadvantaged.”

On a Thursday morning, high school students at Codman Academy packed into their black box theater for the weekly student-run meeting. It was noisy and standing room only. At the end of the meeting came the tradition called “kudos,” in which students and faculty offer praise for a person or group.

“I give kudos to us because we all look beautiful,” said senior Adonis Woods. He added another commendation for a “great” math teacher, Micaela Harris, who “doesn’t get enough credit.”

Humanities teacher Sydney Chaffee listens as Codman Academy ninth-grader Katia Antunes recites her poem.

Later, Adonis ticked off things he had done at Codman, such as performing in the theater and rock climbing during an overnight trip to Merrowvista, a camp in New Hampshire, when students give up junk food and mobile devices. “It’s a time when we could all be together,” he said. “A lot about Codman is being together in a community.”

The school is largely Campbell’s brainchild, and it’s quite different from most American high schools. Everyone is on a first-name basis. Students take Saturday classes. The school shares its building with the Codman Square Health Center, where students get screenings and some have internships.

And everyone must perform before an audience several times in their four years. In their first year, all students recite a poem — from memory —in the Poetry Out Loud competition. Later this year, ninth graders will act in an adaptation of Athol Fugard’s apartheid-era drama “Sizwe Banzi Is Dead” and sophomores will compete in the August Wilson Monologue Competition. “It’s harder to do theater than to climb a rock wall because you’re climbing the rock wall as an individual,” said Campbell.

Campbell and Sydney Chaffee, the 2017 Massachusetts teacher of the year, think the partnership with Boston’s Huntington Theatre is particularly valuable for Codman students.

“When they get up on stage they hold all of the power in the room,” Chaffee said.

Many students agree. Senior Shameka Joseph said, “Being on stage made me feel different.” Although she said she is “a shy person,” she enjoyed performing and hopes to continue with it after graduating.

Codman has its struggles. Many, though not all, students, arrive at high school two to three years behind grade level, yet its four-year graduation rate in 2015 was 72 percent, slightly better than Boston’s overall average.

Maintaining order can be an issue. The week before Thanksgiving, a game designed to prepare ninth-graders for a test stalled periodically as some students refused to participate and others shouted out of turn or insulted classmates.

Related: High schools try to make better use of something often wasted: Senior year

The next morning, many of those students were in the theater to practice their poems. Several were reluctant; some seemed to be going through the motions. Others, though, found poems that spoke to them. Klarah Phillips recited “Little Father” by Li-Young Lee because it reminded her of her late grandfather. “When I’m doing the poem, I’m thinking about him,” she said. And as the morning progressed, every student recited and listened respectfully as their classmates performed.

Finally it was almost noon — time for kudos. One boy who received praise had plunged into his poem, gliding over a marked speech impediment without missing a word. That boy, Chaffee explained, spends much of his day in a special classroom. Chaffee said, “It was such a beautiful moment that he was able to defy people’s expectations of what he could do and the kids were giving him kudos.”

That student was not the only one who had taken a challenge, risked failure and gotten support from the community. Teaching artist Meg O’Brien, manager of education operations at Huntington, said, “I have a giant heart full of kudos. … This is not an easy thing we ask you to do. It is a hard craft, the craft of performing.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about high school reform.

Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.

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