NYC Outward Bound Schools and the ecology of New York City Schools

As part of a series of posts on the evolution of organizations in New York City, the US, and other parts of the world including India and parts of Africa, this post explores the evolution of NYC Outward Bound Schools, an organization dedicated to experiential education in New York City. In order gain a better understanding of the possibilities and challenges for educational innovation NYC Outward Bound has encountered, we recently spoke with several former and current leaders of the organization. They talked about the development of NYC Outward Bound’s work and vision as well as the constantly changing conditions in which organizations like NYC Outward Bound have to operate and adapt. 

Emerging in the rapidly changing educational landscape of the 1980’s, particularly in the wake of A Nation at Risk, NYC Outward Bound Schools established its first educational programs. Since that time, the organization has remained focused on engaging learners in hands-on, experiential education. Over 30 years of evolution, NYC Outward Bound has expanded its presence in New York City. Yet, in contrast to the common practice of organizations attempting to scale rapidly and drastically, NYC Outward Bound has expanded slowly and strategically, moving from offering curricular programs for New York City public schools to operating a network of 11 public schools in the city by 2016. To more deeply explore the history and practices of NYC Outward Bound, we discussed the organization with three of its leaders: Richard Stopol, the president and CEO of NYC Outward Bound Schools, Anthony Conelli, former chief schools officer, and school designer Rebecca Tatistcheff.

The organization and philosophy

Founded in 1941 by Kurt Hahn and Lawrence Holt, Outward Bound began as a school on the coast of Wales that helped train seamen for the harsh life of living at sea. Relatively quickly, however, Outward Bound expanded to a broader focus of encouraging individuals and groups to explore nature and test their physical and mental strength through a number of different outdoor, adventure-based, programs. As NYC Outward Bound Schools’ website puts it, these programs reflect the central philosophy that people “learn and grow when they leave the safety of everyday experiences and challenge themselves in new ways.” After over 70 years, Outward Bound now operates these outdoor adventure programs throughout the world.

Outward Bound 1.0 –Startup Mode

In the 1980’s, at the urging of Greg Farrell, then-Executive Director of the Fund for the City of New York, Richard Stopol and a small team of colleagues brought the powerful, group-based experiential learning activities offered by Outward Bound to New York City youth. Among its goals, NYC Outward Bound aimed to translate outdoor adventure experiences to an urban environment and make them part of a school day.

To accomplish these goals, in its first iteration, NYC Outward Bound focused on 2 strands of work. First, they focused pairing New York City youth with adults in courses that involved outdoor expeditions. Stopol contends that many of the adults who participated in these early courses became key supporters of the new local organization. While this programming carried definite educational elements, it mostly focused on adapting “traditional” Outward Bound experiences incorporating the themes of adventure, service and cross-cultural exploration so that they could take place in New York City.

Second, as part of a partnership with “high-needs” public schools, the organization adapted Outward Bound learning experiences for a number of schools. NYC Outward Bound staff members paired with public school teachers to develop curriculum and courses rooted in Outward Bound philosophy, creating courses that looked like an Outward Bound expedition. In these collaborations, NYC Outward Bound sought to increase student engagement and improve attendance by helping to create curricula and professional development activities for teachers. In those efforts, in Stopol’s words, they sought to bring “as much Outward Bound as you could into the classroom while aligning it with whatever the standards were.” In the process, NYC Outward Bound staff co-planned and co-taught with teachers and worked to create whole sections of the school schedule for the implementation of Outward Bound related classes and projects. For instance, students might engage in an Outward Bound urban expedition, such as learning about and navigating the subway system, as part of their social studies class. At the same time, students would complete a range of assignments related to the expedition.

Outward Bound 2.0—Operating Schools

In the midst of NYC Outward Bounds’ initial efforts to work with schools a question kept popping up from students. “Why can’t the rest of my day be like my Outward Bound class?”  As interest in educational reform grew around the US, an opportunity to address that question also arose when the New American Schools Development Corporation launched a competition to create and implement “break the mold schools”.  The national organization of Outward Bound submitted a winning proposal to create their own model for schools. With the funding they received, Outward Bound opened a division within its national organization to design and implement Expeditionary Learning (or EL) schools in a number of cities. In contrast to the school partnerships in New York City, the EL schools would be based entirely on Outward Bound’s pedagogy and every classroom would incorporate the practices Outward Bound uses to spark and support student learning. Eventually, NYC Outward Bound came to operate the EL schools in New York City, and the answer to the question, “why can’t the rest of my day be like my Outward Bound class,” had become, “it can.”

With the election of Michael Bloomberg as mayor in 2001 and his administration’s support for the development of new schools, NYC Outward Bound Schools saw another opportunity to expand their work. As Stopol put it, NYC Outward Bound Schools decided to “more or less put all its eggs in one basket” and focus on opening new schools. These would be schools that are built upon the EL model and that also offer students opportunities to take part in Outward Bound experiences outside the classroom. With Gates Foundation funding and support from the Bloomberg administration, NYC Outward Bound started opening more new schools in 2004. By 2016, the total number of schools operated by NYC Outward Bound Schools grew to 11.

In this new environment, NYC Outward Bound has had to try to continue to build on the experiential learning model while balancing the shifting demands and expectations for schools reflected in changing policies at the City, State, and Federal level. For instance, each NYC Outward Bound school has a school designer who helps shape curriculum and thematic, experiential learning units called “expeditions.”  As their website proclaims, treating the entire city as a classroom is an important element of the organization’s approach, and many of the expeditions engage students in fieldwork experiences during which they conduct research and meet with experts in the fields they are studying.   At the same time, the designer and teachers have had to contend the establishment of new school report cards in New York City and subsequent state initiatives to use test scores to evaluate teachers and to implement the Common Core Learning Standards.

Outward Bound 3.0 – Beyond the whole school model

In the early 2010’s, although charter schools continued to expand in New York City, funds and support for the development of new public schools began to wane.  As a consequence, NYC Outward Bound staff members have wondered how they can both deepen their work in their existing schools and expand their influence.  The efforts to deepen their approach has included the establishment of a college preparation program to increase the number of its students who attend and finish college. This “to and through college” program looks at how to use college counselors as well as peers to support students in the NYC Outward Bound Schools both while they are in high school as well as when they are in college. The program includes a partnership with CARA (a college access program) through which graduates of NYC Outward Bound schools currently in college serve as coaches for students currently enrolled in NYC Outward Bound schools.

On a more organizational level, NYC Outward Bound Schools also endeavors, as former CSO Anthony Conelli explains, to answer the question “how do you create a context that allows people to share their practice, own their conversation, and improve this kind of work?”  As part of these efforts, the leaders of the 11 NYC Outward Bound network schools meet monthly.  With the “host” school rotating each month, the leaders visit classrooms and look at student work together, sharing observations and feedback with the host school.

In addition to deepening the work in the existing schools, NYC Outward Bound continues to look for ways to create what Conelli calls “places of influence” — new ways and new venues through which to share their educational philosophy and practices and to support others in doing so. With this in mind, NYC Outward Bound has expanded its work by developing a model for “associate schools.” Associate schools are existing public schools within New York City that work with NYC Outward Bound staff to adopt a particular feature or structure associated with its educational approach. For example, associate schools might look at how to organize their curriculum into expeditions, or they might adopt the “Crew” structure that is in place in all NYC Outward Bound Schools, a team-based approach to supporting and advising groups of students. In some ways, this way of working with partner schools, as Conelli puts it, takes the whole school model and pulls apart its strands. At the same time, it also serves as a way to provide an easier entry point and the scaffolding needed to help existing schools to take on the whole school model.

NYC Outward Bound—concluding by looping back

When Richard Stopol thinks back NYC Outward Bound’s 30-year history in New York City and this arc from infusing Outward Bound into schools, creating a network of new schools, and now sharing practices and resources with associate schools, he takes a moment to calculate that NYC Outward Bound Schools has worked with 14 chancellors of education and 5 mayors in New York City. Of course, he contends, the changing social and political landscapes of New York City have required some adaptation from the organization. And yet, Stopol sees a consistent mission for NYC Outward Bound over the years: To help the youth of New York City by bringing the Outward Bound approach to the city’s public schools in ways that “transform schools and change lives.”

Jordan Corson

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